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Virtual Audiences And T-Shirt Guns: How TV’s Music Competition Shows Are Coping With The Coronavirus

In the age of COVID-19, The Masked Singer panelist Ken Jeong found himself in an unexpected role as the singing competition entered its fourth season.
Jeong, who was a practicing physician before he gained fame in projects such as The Hangover and Community, has become an unofficial pandemic adviser for the show, which kicked off a new season on Fox on Sept. 23.

“Dr. Ken is so on top of COVID. He has reviewed everything that we do. He has talked to the rest of the panel. He’s trying to educate everyone there, and he’s coming from science,” executive producer Craig Plestis tells Billboard. It was Jeong’s suggestion that the show build separate outdoor areas for the panelists to spend time between takes since the virus spreads more easily inside. “Ken said, ‘The set is the most secure place I’ll ever go,’” recalls Plestis.

Like Jeong and Plestis, executives on music reality shows have found themselves taking on roles they never expected in an effort to keep their programs safely on the air. As much as the pandemic has wrought havoc, it has also led to innovation, they say.

As the coronavirus took hold in the spring, both NBC’s The Voice and ABC’s American Idol went virtual, with the coaches and contestants finishing their respective seasons via Zoom from their homes thanks to equipment provided by the shows. “The technical tricks and hoops we jumped through were significant, to say the least, but it was really exciting to stretch and creatively problem solve,” says The Voice executive producer Audrey Morrissey of the quick pivot to home shows. “You are forced to [reinvent]. In a lot of ways it was good for the team.”

For the most part, it was also good for ratings. The Voice’s ratings for its Monday night shows were up 2.8% over 2019 (although its four Tuesday night shows were down 6%), according to Nielsen. And while American Idol often handily won its Sunday night slot, its overall ratings for the 2020 season were down 9.07% from 2019. However, its two Monday night shows were up 2.25% over last year.

“There were initially a lot of things that might have been perceived as a negative, such as the contestants couldn’t stand on a stage with 600 people in the audience,” says American Idol executive producer/showrunner Trish Kinane. “But when they got voted through and heard the news with their family and their dog in their garden, those were really emotional moments. If they had been in the studio, they wouldn’t have had that hug with their mom.”
Nevertheless, the producers of Idol, The Voice and their ilk are committed to returning to their respective studios for their next seasons, albeit with a number of safety protocols in place and mostly no live audiences.

“I was keen to move it from everyone being in a box,” says Kinane. “With it being an entertainment show, we wanted proper sound and variety.”

La Voz, Telemundo’s Spanish-language version of the Voice franchise, was the first music competition to accomplish that goal. Its second season was halted by the coronavirus in the spring. After a three-month hiatus, La Voz returned to its Miami studio in July for its last four episodes with regular testing for crew members (reduced to essential staffers), contestants and judges, as well as masking and temperature checks. Audiences weren’t allowed until the finals, when only contestants’ family members, wearing masks and social distancing, attended.

“Regardless of the size, the energy a live audience brings to a show gets projected not only to the contestants, but also to the audience watching from home,” says Francisco Suarez, executive vp primetime nonscripted programming at Telemundo. The Masked Singer’s Plestis agrees: The show is using a virtual reality audience around the stage, as well as cutaways from previous seasons that are explained with a disclaimer at show’s end.

The protocols practiced by La Voz paved the way for other Telemundo productions, including family reality competition show El Domo del Dinero, which premiered Oct. 17. They “allowed us to reinvent the way we do television as we developed the new safety production protocols and successfully put them in place,” says Suarez.

The pandemic has turned competitors into colleagues. “After our first show, most of the people who called me were people I never heard from wanting to know how we did something,” says Sam Donnelly, who executive-produces America’s Got Talent with Jason Raff.

For AGT, which returned live in mid-August with socially distanced judges and a huge video wall featuring hundreds of viewers, the guidelines developed by the TV and film unions, in accordance with Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, have been key to proceeding safely.

The guidelines, followed by all productions, mandate that employees are divided into zones: Zone A includes performers and the crew who work closest to them; Zone B includes other production workers, who are able to distance themselves from their co-workers and their talent. Depending upon the zone, staffers are tested for the coronavirus up to three times a week. Some judges are tested daily. “It’s the new normal having something shoved up your nose,” says Raff.
Keeping staff and talent safe has ratcheted budgets upward. “Just the COVID-19 testing alone for the season is a large number that was not expected,” says Raff. One executive producer estimated that pandemic-related expenses, including testing and other safety protocols and changes to production, have added an average of $100,000 to shows’ budgets.

Most shows are produced with reduced staff, and employees, such as writers, who can work remotely, do so. Staff limits and social distancing have made it difficult to build sets or do quick changeovers during commercial breaks. AGT switched locations from the Dolby Theater in Hollywood to the Universal lot, where it has made creative use of the existing sets. The Voice, which premieres Oct. 19, will adapt as well, using digital effects screens — commonly referred to as green or blue screens — that enable producers to put the contestants in any number of settings. “You can’t build sets in time and you can’t have that many people move them on and offstage,” says Morrissey, who is also executive producer for Songland. While The Voice will continue to have a live band, musical enhancements like a 25-person choir or a string section aren’t viable for now “because everyone has to be tested.”

The pandemic has also drastically affected the audition process. AGT executives decided early on that contestants wouldn’t be limited to who could make it to Los Angeles and beamed in artists from as far away as Australia. “If they deserved to be on,” says Donnelly, “they deserved to be on.”

For The Voice, friends and family weren’t allowed to be on site during the early audition rounds other than guardians for minors. Traveling contestants were tested before they boarded a plane to come to L.A. and were quarantined for several days upon arrival at the same hotel. “They were then retested and if the results were still negative, they could start to interact in our world — in a socially distanced manner,” says Morrissey. Contestants are positioned 30 feet away from the coaches because singing projects aerosol particles and droplets and neither party is masked. Since hugging and high-fiving is also prohibited, each coach has devised a way to engage with a contestant, such as Gwen Stefani using a T-shirt gun to launch shirts at her newly selected team members.

American Idol went virtual for its first round of auditions. Instead of the usual bus tour, the ABC show held Zoom auditions in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., over the course of 18 dates, during which contestants performed remotely in front of a producer. Though states were assigned specific days, singers could audition on any date regardless of their location.

Kihane says the judges are still conducting in-person auditions in October in three cities, all in California, down from five last year nationwide.Producers say that one of the biggest challenges of social distancing on their shows is maintaining the emotional heights of previous seasons. “Lionel Richie hugs everyone 100 times a day, Katy Perry runs around on roller skates, Luke Bryan goes to the piano and plays with [the contestants],” says Kihane of the Idol judges. “How do we still get the warmth when you can’t touch each other?” She adds that the show will utilize creative staging that allows for some safe interaction as a stopgap.

By the time Idol begins airing live episodes in the spring, she hopes the show will be able to have in-person audiences, but says that all decisions are day to day.
“We’re all control freaks; we’re used to planning everything down to the last detail,” says Kihane of herself and her fellow executive producers. “But you can’t plan for anything like this.”

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