Commentary: TV looks dramatically different in the wake of COVID-19, but where does it go from here?

Victor Puente anchors the WKYT 4 p.m. newscast from his home in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. He is working from home because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS)
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By David Zurawik The Baltimore Sun (TNS)

The phone on the nightstand woke me at 9 a.m. Easter Sunday.

“Hi David,” the producer from CNN’s “Reliable Sources” said. “I hope you are well. I know this is short notice, but would you be available to do the show today?”

“Today? I am available, but the show starts in two hours. Is that even possible?” I asked.

“Sure. Someone will call you shortly and help you download what you need … Bye.”

At 10:50 a.m., the hookup on my laptop was still not working. But at 11 a.m., there I was, live on CNN from the living room of my bungalow in Baltimore — all systems go.

This is television in the age of COVID-19.

I have been appearing on “Reliable Sources” as a guest since 2005, and during that time the basic process has changed very little. It starts with a phone call Wednesday or Thursday asking if I am available on Sunday. After several email exchanges and sometimes a phone call discussing possible topics, it concludes on Sunday morning with a trip to CNN’s Washington studio to do the show.

But that was before the pandemic.

Anyone who saw a feverish-looking Chris Cuomo doing his nightly CNN show live from the basement of his home while he was quarantined with COVID-19 doesn’t need me to tell them how drastically the pandemic has affected the look and content of a medium that had changed very little structurally since it first started broadcasting into American homes in the late 1940s.

Studio audiences missing in action. Late night and comedy show hosts livestreaming from their homes doing webcam interviews with guests, while the theaters that housed their shows are shuttered. Stephen Colbert in a bathtub at home doing his monologue. Jimmy Kimmel’s 5-year-old daughter doing her dad’s makeup. Bill Maher standing in his backyard trashing President Donald Trump with every bit as much vitriol as he does onstage.

NFL coaches sitting in their teched-up home offices announcing their selections in the draft. Contestants on musical competition shows performing in their living rooms instead of on the stages of glittering theaters filled to the rafters with cheering fans and a blizzard of confetti.

And almost all of it getting higher ratings than ever with a near-captive American audience that since mid-March has had few entertainment options outside the home.

The changes are pretty hard to miss. But the question is: Where does TV go from here? Like most legacy media, TV has been most highly resistant to structural change. Will the medium simply go back to same old, same old if and when the pandemic is under control and normal patterns of production can resume? What’s ahead in the short term of the fall season, and longer term given the revolutionary change throughout media? And, most of all, how will any changes that might occur affect us as viewers and the culture at large?

“There are two major ways that TV is going to change: the way they make it and the way we watch it,” says TV historian David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, TV critic on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross and founder of the website tvworthwatching.com.

The most obvious change in terms of making it is that network television will not be able to produce anything approaching a new fall season, the broadcast industry’s traditional showcase for its most promising prime-time product. The COVID-19 clamp down hit in March just as production on pilots and episodes for entertainment shows should have begun.

Los Angeles County officials and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said television and film production could resume as of Friday, but the trade publication Variety reported that “major studios are still weeks — if not months — away from rolling cameras.” There are all sorts of issues that have to be resolved before shows that take months to make can even start the process. For one thing, the many unions involved in making TV productions will have to sign off on their members going back to work even as certain metrics suggest COVID-19 could be rising again in the area. Garcetti qualified his announcement of reopening by saying if there is a rise in of cases in two or three weeks, he will re-evaluate the policy, according to Deadline.

As a result of the pause in production, “inventory is going to become more valuable,” Bianculli says; inventory defined as shows you have on the shelf ready to go. Thanks to their production model, the network cupboards are pretty bare, even after scouring other English-speaking countries the last three months for limited series that can be shown without subtitles.

The outlets that do have inventory are premium cable and streaming services, like HBO and Netflix.

While the networks are offering reruns of series that weren’t worth your time in first run last year, HBO, for example, has a new version of the 1950s courtroom drama “Perry Mason” set to premiere June 21. Set in 1930s Los Angeles, the series stars Matthew Rhys, of “The Americans,” in the original story of the iconic defense attorney.

For documentary fans, meanwhile, HBO this month offers “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn.” The film looks at the infamous attorney who served as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg as spies during that same decade. More recently, the ruthless Cohn, who was disbarred in 1986, the year of his death, was Donald Trump’s lawyer and Merlin-like mentor. You can’t start to understand Trump without understanding the evil that was Cohn. The film, which is directed by Ivy Meeropol, the Rosenbergs’ granddaughter, premieres June 19.

Nothing in any of the networks’ programming arsenals except live sports can compete with that kind of programming. That is the one thing that can semi-save the networks this fall and winter: if professional sports returns with the NFL. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” was still the highest rated show on TV with some 20 millions viewers last year.

With training camps expected to open soon, it looks as if college and professional football could be back on TV this fall. But in what form? Will fans be allowed in the stands? And what happens if COVID-19 spikes and some of the infections are traced to stadium crowds?

The reality of the networks having less to offer and the premium cable and streaming series offering more is what worries me most about the effect the pandemic is having on television. This programming gap further divides us into haves and have-nots: two Americas at a time when we can ill afford one more schism. Those without the means to pay high subscription fees are not only denied the pleasures of the best in entertainment programming, but are also locked out of the deeper conversation about American and global life offered in many of those productions like “Bully. Coward. Victim.” That’s a serious matter, a large segment of the population in a democracy not being able to afford access to the most important stories and storytellers of the culture.

Even in the scramble to find international programming, streaming services are getting the best series, like “The Bureau” from France and “Fauda” from Israel, because they have been working the territory for years and are not afraid of subtitles. Bianculli says he finds himself previewing more streamed international programming these days at TV Worth Watching (tvworthwatching.com).

Still, Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, sees potential for some positive change in network television as a result of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

“You could see more news programs in prime time on network TV as the broadcasters look for programming in the fall,” Thompson said. “They know how to do them. Remember the era of prime-time newsmagazines? We could see more from news, and that seems like it could be a good thing.”

In the 1990s, ABC, CBS and NBC all offered prime-time news magazines: “Dateline” at NBC, “60 Minutes II” at CBS and “Prime Time Live” on ABC. It was more about business than journalism during an era of downsizing as newsmagazines cost far less to produce than dramas or sitcoms thanks to having the infrastructure of a news division already in place.

Making a move to more news this summer and fall makes further sense given the fact that we are in a moment of great turmoil and social change with COVID-19, a presidential election, an economy in deep trouble and the arrival at what feels like a tipping point in reaction to police brutality against persons of color, mainly African American men. News viewing has been up at the cable channels and network nightly news for months. With a nation tuned in and looking for information and answers it can trust, more prime-time news programming makes perfect sense in coming months, and could make for a more informed electorate in November.

Thompson also feels the change from glossy, perfectly-lit, studio-made productions to the more informal, Internet-like look of the late night, and talk shows done from home might be with us to stay in some form.

“Historically, the networks defined themselves by high production values — good composition, perfect lighting and so forth — but since about 2005 with YouTube, bad production values started to be read as authenticity by some viewers,” he said.

That’s especially true with younger viewers, many of whom seemed to enjoy the way digital productions sometimes deconstructed the conventions of performance and presentation on network TV by showing the overhead boom mic in the shot or pulling the camera back to show the way the backdrop was merely an image projected onto a wall, curtain or screen.

Less focus on slick production values and more attention to the quality of what’s being produced would be a small but welcome outcome of this disruption in TV as we always knew it. But I’m not betting on “live from a bungalow in Baltimore” as the future of television news.

I am certain, though, that post-COVID the viewing audience is going to be even more divided than it is now between those who can afford the best in programs and those who can’t. In television, it is always about the money.

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(David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.)
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