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How will reality TV work now that reality feels unreal?

Kristin Schwab May 14, 2020
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Kris Jenner, left, her daughter Kim Kardashian and bocce ball instructor Jackie Savitt film an episode of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" in 2008. Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Caesars Palace
COVID-19

How will reality TV work now that reality feels unreal?

Kristin Schwab May 14, 2020
Heard on:
Kris Jenner, left, her daughter Kim Kardashian and bocce ball instructor Jackie Savitt film an episode of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" in 2008. Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Caesars Palace
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This was supposed to be a big week for TV, with networks rolling out fall lineups to start the advertising race. But announcements for renewals and cancellations have been slow as shows try to figure out how to pivot during COVID-19. And that includes the filming of unscripted shows. How do you make reality TV when reality feels so … unreal?

On the most recent episode of “American Idol,” contestant Louis Knight sang on his porch to a live audience — of one. His mom. The judges were there, too, but virtually, watching through little boxes that looked like a Zoom call.

“Survivor,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” are also producing shows remotely.

“It’s going to look a lot more DIY,” said Tom Nunan, a professor at the School of Theater, Film & Television at UCLA. “You’re not going to see your favorite celebrities or personalities lit or made up. But that may be part of the charm of this,” Nunan said.

But how long can this charm last? Shows that document peoples’ lives could clash with the harsh reality of the pandemic. Like Bravo’s “Vanderpump Rules,” a social drama set in an LA restaurant. Or “The Amazing Race,” which is all about travel.

“I mean, the reality right now would be everybody in front of the camera with a mask on,” said Chris Sanders, the executive producer at Atlantic Television, a production company that works with NBC and The Discovery Channel.

Shows that could thrive are the kind that happen in a bubble. You know, where you throw a bunch of people together for a social experiment. Think “Big Brother” or Netflix’s “Love Is Blind.”

“You’ve basically gotta create an environment that’s going to be safe. So we probably will be seeing more of these kinds of closed-environment scenarios,” Sanders said.

And watching people whose biggest worries are a love triangle or being voted off an island could give audiences a break from actual reality.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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