The fall TV season is shaping up to be one of the strangest ever
If all goes well, life could start going back to an uncertain normal by September. Nonessential workers might begin to return to their offices, schools could reopen, midsize gatherings could carefully resume. But our entertainment is likely to lag behind for months, a haunting afterimage of the pandemic even when the worst is finally over.
Traditionally the fall television season is the biggest and boldest of the calendar year, and it starts gearing up six months or more before Labor Day. Those months, of course, are our present — but with production on nearly every show halted, and pilot season effectively dead on arrival, the fall TV season is already shaping up to be one of the strangest and most conservative in memory.
Television networks, of course, have faced interruptions before, but nothing on the scale of coronavirus. "We had the writers' strike, the horrible events of 9/11, the '09 recession," media buyer Andy Donchin told Entertainment Weekly recently. "But this is much more unprecedented. Long term, it's going to initiate bigger changes than anybody would have ever envisioned." While it's unlikely that the pandemic is going to change television in quite the same way as it is dramatically reshaping the future of the film industry, it's true that the next 18 months or so of TV will be more limited than anything we've experienced before.
This week, Fox became the first network to release its "pandemic proof" fall schedule, giving audiences and critics a peek into how broadcasters are thinking about their post-outbreak programming. All things considered, Fox is in relatively good position: The network relies on animated favorites like The Simpsons, Family Guy, Bob's Burgers, and Bless the Harts, all of which can plausibly continue getting made remotely. Additionally, Fox delayed two new series it has already completed — Filthy Rich, a family satire starring Kim Cattrall; and neXt, a sci-fi crime drama with John Slattery — pushing them from their spring air dates back to the fall, to keep things fresh in September. Fox is also pulling shows from its limited platforms for network debuts (National Geographic's Cosmos: Possible Worlds and Spectrum Cable's L.A.'s Finest) and gambling on being able to quickly stitch together new seasons of reality TV, like The Masked Singer, once shooting becomes possible again perhaps later this summer. Its riskiest move of all, though, is counting on the return of sports to fill out its fall calendar. (Meanwhile, "Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, Comcast Corp.'s NBC and ViacomCBS Inc.'s CBS are rushing to come up with their own fall lineups and aren't expected to make any programming announcements this week," notes The Wall Street Journal).
Based on what we can gather from Fox, it's safe to say you shouldn't expect any bold new TV shows by this fall, as you would in other years. Because it's still uncertain when production will be safe to resume on new live-action projects, only shows that were ordered in full — and therefore bypassed the intermediate pilot phase — have a chance of being finalized early enough to make it on air by the end of the summer; Entertainment Weekly notes this could be the case for The Lincoln Lawyer at CBS and thirtysomething(else) at ABC. Shows that haven't substantially begun production but are still likely to return to networks — like Fox's renewed 9-1-1, the spinoff 9-1-1: Lone Star, and Prodigal Sun — are now potentially going to air during a midseason that might end up looking a lot more like what you might expect from a traditional fall season due to all the pushed-back premieres.
Reruns, naturally, will be a sure thing too. ABC is already playing with "Flashback Fridays," while NBC has also made clear it won't hesitate to fill primetime with its hundreds of hours of classic shows. Fox, meanwhile, is robbing content from its sister channels in order to find something fresh to air on the station after the summer ends (the delayed premieres of Filthy Rich and neXt will be Fox's only truly new shows come fall). Streamers like Netflix — which don't face the pressure of filling primetime TV spots or competing against other networks for ratings — also have an advantage of offering libraries of nostalgic favorites that can be turned back on by viewers once its new content is exhausted.
Reality television, though, will be a particularly fascinating bellwether as the pandemic begins to ease off. Fox, for example, has included The Masked Singer on its fall TV slate, banking on being able to quickly shoot and edit the show in August in order to have it ready for Wednesday nights in September. Because of the fairly low production values and the ease of editing reality TV, competition shows will potentially be a way for networks to quickly add new content to their lineups — with that being especially the case for the nimbler streamers, which can offer new twists on quarantine-friendly concepts like Love Is Blind or The Circle if lockdown continues into the fall.
In that sense, reality TV is also one of the trickiest kinds of shows to resume because they more often than not involve travel and social interaction. The Bachelorette, on ABC, is reportedly toying with holding Clare Crawley's season in quarantine, forgoing the show's traditional hometown visits and trips to romantic locales. "We've looked at everything — are travel restrictions going to ease up? And it just doesn't look like anything is changing anytime soon, and what we would rather do is start getting the season underway, sooner rather than later," ABC's reality chief Rob Mills recently told Variety, illustrating networks' eagerness to get new content on air in any form. Survivor, meanwhile, is already in a log jam after Season 41, scheduled to begin filming March 24 in Fiji to air in September, was delayed, bumping up against Season 42, scheduled to begin filming May 24 to air February 2021.
Of course the biggest question mark of all is sports. Fox at least has WWE wrestling, which it has been taping without audiences, but its fall schedule also shows that the network is optimistically counting on the return of the NFL. Live sports are filmed on the go, of course, making them appealing for a content-starved station, although Fox seems to forget that, as with TV pilot season, there are months of lead up before athletes ever make it into stadiums. "Before games can be played, teams must first open their offices and training facilities, which have been shut since mid-March, then hold training camps, which are to begin in mid-July," writes The New York Times. That's far less of a sure thing at this point.
Yet if crowds are able to safely gather by the summer — and television production resumes — then we might at least see a more interesting, if hastily assembled, slate of fall TV resulting from a combination of sports and reality TV. But the reverberations of the pandemic are already pushing into the seasons ahead; Amazon's forthcoming adaptations of Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time, which do not yet even have air dates, also halted production this summer, potentially pushing them as far back as 2022.
TV is nothing if not resilient though; as a network insider assured Vulture back in mid-March, "We work in f--king television. It's not a brain surgery. We'll be fine. This, too, shall pass." And it's true that in the scheme of things, one bad fall TV season is an insignificant gripe. But there's also never been a more essential time to find relief in the form of a story, to distract ourselves with new protagonists and characters, novel plots and worlds. Hopefully, you haven't seen all the reruns.