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We’re Going to Run Out of TV

In the early months of the pandemic, television was in a rare position to maintain a modicum of normalcy. But as the shutdown drags on, and as sets remain closed, a drought is upon us.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the past half-decade, TV has been defined by its surplus. The era we’re in, which is maybe just ending, has many names: Peak TV, Too Much TV, the Streaming Age. Whatever you call it, the result is a proliferation of platforms and content to stock them. With precious few exceptions, the conversation around TV has shifted from shows themselves to the surrounding infrastructure. The average consumer spends less time pondering plot-based questions like “Who shot J.R.?” and more time on the nuts and bolts of how they get their entertainment: Is this new service worth subscribing to? If so, how do I access it? With so many options out there, is this show worth my time?

The coronavirus pandemic has shifted how we lead our daily lives. As a concern, TV is obviously far less urgent than the life-or-death business of stopping the spread and administering care. Besides, for a few months, the time lag between production and distribution made TV a unique refuge from the ongoing effects of COVID-19, not an example of them. But as reality starts to catch up with an industry on prolonged pause, the reversal sprung on television as a whole is beginning to look unusually stark. When an entire ecosystem is premised on the idea of too much TV, what happens when there’s suddenly too little—or, at a minimum, dramatically less?

The coronavirus has come for television in waves. The first shows to be affected were arguably the easiest to adjust: daily, news-driven, unscripted programming, from CNN to late night. It’s still strange to watch John Oliver hold forth against a plain blue backdrop in lieu of his typical Photoshopped skyline, or interviewees beam in from their homes in lieu of a studio couch. But the essential functionality of these shows as a daily source of information and/or distraction has been preserved—this moment has even given rise to inventive spins on certain staples, like sibling duo Chloe x Halle staging a Today Show performance on a tennis court with some help from a drone. In June, the BET Awards became the first awards show to adapt to the constraints of social distancing. Hosted by Insecure star Amanda Seales, the broadcast lacked the spontaneity associated with high-wattage live events, but also allowed for preparation and production value; reaction GIFs of the audience were traded off for pretaped performances. For some forms of TV, at least, the pandemic has mandated changes that are drastic but nonetheless doable. Creativity, after all, can thrive under constraints.

Other genres, particularly scripted shows shot on crowded, enclosed sets, have not been so fortunate. The pandemic came first for series on tight turnarounds, airing some episodes while still filming and editing others. It’s a standard practice rendered suddenly problematic, concentrated in—though by no means exclusive to— the realm of broadcast TV, with its streamlined budgets and extended seasons. (Separating production and postproduction makes little sense when a show airs for 22 weeks a year.) NBC’s The Blacklist earned jeers for its semi-animated season finale in May, which spliced standard live action with comics-inspired CGI. But the hastily assembled conclusion would prove to be a canary in a firmly collapsed coal mine.

In the month-plus since, more conventionally prestigious shows were forced to cut their seasons short. The Good Fight, on CBS All Access, is no stranger to animation as a storytelling device, but creators Robert and Michelle King opted instead to wrap up their fourth season after just seven episodes. (At least the drama went out in suitably absurd fashion, with a shot of Jeffrey Epstein’s detached and preserved penis.) Over on Showtime, both Billions and Black Monday put their current volumes on indefinite hiatus, with stated plans to resume later in the year as public health provisions allow.

Except the expected return to normalcy has yet to arrive. In California, still the hub of production, film and TV have technically been cleared to restart since June 12. ABC’s The Bachelorette confirmed its plans to get back in the rose-dispensary business, while NBCUniversal let select employees trickle back onto its lot. But as L.A. has become an infection hotspot and soaring case counts have prompted mandatory closure of many counties’ dine-in restaurants and bars, the idea that a high-risk enterprise like a crowded soundstage could proceed unaffected seems increasingly far-fetched. Just last week, Variety published a report, headlined “Coronavirus Spike Puts Hollywood’s Back-to-Work Plans in Serious Jeopardy,” that addressed pauses in production both in California and states like Georgia and Louisiana that have become de facto Hollywood satellites thanks to tax breaks. Some productions have discussed relocating overseas, but that’s an option available to only a select few. Everything else remains on hold—and the longer the holding pattern persists, the more scarcity there will likely be down the line.

Without new productions to join the queue, studios are left with a finite and dwindling supply to dole out now and in the coming months. Summer is always a slow time, but July features a scant handful of notable new releases: YA adaptation The Baby-Sitters Club on Netflix, stripper dramedy P-Valley on Starz, the Brave New World adaptation on NBCUniversal’s stand-alone streaming service Peacock. With Ethan Hawke miniseries The Good Lord Bird pushed to October, August is even more sparse, apart from HBO’s Lovecraft Country. Nor is the usual fall relief for bored audiences anywhere close to guaranteed.

This scenario automatically puts some outlets, particularly wealthy and web-based ones, at an advantage. Netflix’s Ted Sarandos has insisted that the streaming service is already well-stocked through the remainder of 2020, and in fact well into 2021. (So far, that declaration seems to be panning out; Netflix has 56 original series, films, and documentaries slated for July, on par with March’s tally of 59.) Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi may have untold issues with its launch and execution, but at the very least it arrived on the scene with six months’ worth of quick bites in the bank. Such companies have both billions to burn in content budgets and, without fixed time slots, more flexibility in rearranging a prescheduled release.

Meanwhile, broadcast networks are forging ahead with upfronts to present their fall programming despite the total cessation of pilot season and the cyclical generation of offerings for green-lighting executives. With just a single pilot produced—a multi-camera comedy from Chuck Lorre—networks are instead expected to make straight-to-series orders based on expanded scripts and outlines. But exactly when those ordered series can make it to the screen remains in question. Nearly four months into quarantine, the prospect of depleted schedules is no longer a distant possibility, or even a looming reality. It’s here, and it’s less a departure from TV’s status quo than the emergence of a new one. At long last, the effects of the shutdown have trickled down from entertainment’s producers to its restless, housebound consumers.

Ironically, summer is also a time for TV to look backward, with the run-up to Emmy nominations unleashing a flood of “For Your Consideration” ads. As notice after notice implores voters to reflect on what Hollywood has accomplished in the past year, they indirectly lead to questions about what’s to come. The 2020 Emmy ceremony will undoubtedly be ad hoc and uncanny, with an isolated host and scattered honorees. More uncertain is what, if anything, the Academy will have to celebrate in 2021.