‘Vast swathes of the television production community stopped working overnight. Any television show involving camera crews, studio audiences, the general public, travel, or proximity of any kind, was, at best, postponed indefinitely; at worst, cancelled outright’
First, the brutality. Vast swathes of the television production community stopped working overnight. Any television show involving camera crews, studio audiences, the general public, travel, or proximity of any kind, was, at best, postponed indefinitely; at worst, cancelled outright.
The Creative Industries Federation has just surveyed 2,000 creative businesses in the UK. An astonishing 50 per cent of them said they would probably not survive beyond the end of June. Half of one of our most important industries has been devastated in a matter of weeks.
And now, the dilemma. Never in the history of television has the entire population of the country been at home, all day and all night, crying out to be informed, educated, and, perhaps most importantly, entertained. This has kickstarted a scramble for content as broadcasters and producers rush to get lockdown-friendly material on air.
This dilemma is intensified by the complex nature of television scheduling. Some projects—high-end dramas, for instance—can take years to come to the screen. Others, particularly in entertainment, have much shorter gestation periods. Series can be commissioned to air in a matter of weeks. Big-hitting family favourites such as Saturday Night Takeaway and Strictly Come Dancing are broadcast live.
This means that holes start appearing in the schedules relatively quickly. If you add the tens of thousands of hours of live sport that have been shelved, and throw in the fact that all our soaps are on the cusp of running dry, the velocity and vandalism of this virus on the body of the industry comes into stark relief.
Entertainment chiefs have been battling valiantly. Technology is a useful weapon in the fight. Shows continue to be produced, remotely, and beloved brands like Have I Got News For You continue to air, albeit differently. A handful of new formats have been quickly cut in editors’ kitchens and served up to hungry audiences.
It’s been hit and miss. But then entertainment always is. We have quickly reached a certain Zoom-tolerance threshold when it comes to original content. But the pandemic is making us all ask more profound questions about what it is we do. As the television community in the UK (and all over the world) reels from the triple-pronged assault of production shutdown, evaporating advertising budgets and a mass exodus of skilled workers, there are, inevitably, more existential questions to be asked.
Whereas big-hitting scripted shows like Game of Thrones propel us into fantastical worlds in which magic, sex, power and death collide in an intoxicating swirl of the impossible made real, it’s the unscripted entertainment juggernauts that keep us firmly rooted in the present.
One veteran producer describes a good entertainment format as: “Any show where decent, ordinary people get to win something.” Simple, yes, but also poignant. From X-Factor to Big Brother, watching our fellow human beings strive to become better versions of themselves is addictive, therapeutic and even cathartic. (I know I’d be useless at riding a dragon or wielding a broadsword, and would make a terrible international drug baron, but I think Paul Hollywood might quite like my tarte tatin.)
We will always watch fictional kings and queens, witches, daemons, heroes and villains but, in great entertainment, the players that strut and fret upon the stage . . . are you and me. That’s the important difference, because in a time where our very survival seems to be at stake, content that values us as participating members of society has a heightened sense of purpose.
Claudia Rosencrantz, who oversaw a golden decade of entertainment at ITV and the creation of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Britain’s Got Talent, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and Love Island, is passionate about its higher purpose: “The role of entertainment at times of great stress . . . is to offer unity—a focus for social cohesion amongst families and friends of all ages and groups which allow them to watch together, share together, be together even when they are separated. So the shared experience of watching the same content bridges distance and generations.”
But she is also wary of the new future that we face. The fear of coronavirus, so successfully sown in the national consciousness by the government, is not something that can be weeded out as quickly as it was seeded. Yes, at some point we will again be allowed to put TV crews together, to film members of the public, even to assemble large studio audiences. But this presents a challenge, a moral and behavioural conundrum for producers and broadcasters alike. The cancellation of this summer’s series of the hugely popular Love Island was inevitable, but putting twelve young strangers on a plane to Majorca and asking them to live together in a villa, and then beds, feels like an improbable aspiration even for next year right now. This unseeable enemy will have long-term subliminal impacts on us all, an Israeli scientist recently observed.
Looking back on the years during which I produced Big Brother, I realise that we imposed a strangely prescient kind of lockdown on all our participants, every summer for nearly twenty years. So, what now? There is some optimism that things might quickly return to some kind of normality. We are told that many of our favourite shows will return later this year. I hope they do. I suspect they will not.
Television has excelled itself in recent weeks. The BBC has effortlessly glided its way back into untouchable National Treasure status. But the virus has latched on to many, if not all, of the main arteries that supply and sustain the wider body of television production here in the UK. The coming weeks and months could herald a catastrophic diminution of the resources and people needed to provide those shared experiences that sustain us, through good times and bad. Let’s hope our revels now are not ended.
The fee for this article will be donated to the Covid-19 Film and TV Emergency Relief Fund.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.
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