By Lucas Shaw, Gerry Smith and Kelly Gilblom
September 22, 2020


The coming fall TV season promises to be full of drama—just not the kind that network executives originally imagined.

In a normal year, Fox, CBS, NBC, CW and ABC would be rolling out a carefully engineered slate of new shows to premiere in late September or early October. For decades, the broadcast networks in the U.S. have built nights around certain genres, including comedies, reality competitions and police dramas.

While most executives admit that scheduling shows for a specific day and time is anachronistic in an on-demand world, the fall lineups still dictate how billions of dollars of advertising are spent. Each spring, advertisers set aside a chunk of their budgets for the new, most promising shows, and TV studios hire writers, actors and directors to produce episodes in time for a grand, autumnal display.

Typically, a hefty portion of the fall schedule is devoted to scripted programming. Last year, the broadcast networks relied on such shows—cop procedurals, medical dramas, family sitcoms—to fill, on average, almost 60 hours per week of their prime time schedules.

But this year, the pipeline of multicamera comedies and salty police detectives has all but run dry. Production on scripted programs shut down in March and is only now slowly resuming. As a result, this fall the networks will be scrambling to fill airtime in novel ways.

“Everything is moved around,” said Jeff Bader, NBC’s president of program planning, strategy and research, who has been in meetings for months, mapping out potential scenarios.

The solution, in the short term, will be to fill the airwaves with more reality TV, one-off specials and, if necessary, reruns. Some networks will also be borrowing shows from corporate siblings. CBS will be airing old episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, which  first appeared on its All Access streaming service.

The networks do have a few things going for them. The final stretch of the presidential election promises to generate plenty of drama, including four nights of prime time debates. There will also be more sports than usual, thanks to the tennis tournaments and playoff competitions that were delayed over the spring and summer due to the coronavirus concerns and will now take place this fall.

Networks hope to have new episodes of scripted programs by November. It’s hard to be certain that the shows will be ready. Similarly, nothing in sports, politics or reality programming is guaranteed to go as planned. Some college football conferences have already canceled and uncanceled their fall seasons, and the presidential election likewise brims with possibilities the broadcast networks must be prepared for.

In short, hold onto your remotes. Fall 2020 is going to be bonkers.

Compared with scripted programming, producers can turn around new episodes of reality shows, talent competitions, and game shows much faster. As a result, prime time this autumn will be stuffed with unscripted programming.

Through September, CBS will continue airing nightly the second season of Love Island, a dating show being shot under quarantine conditions inside a casino resort in Las Vegas.

ABC will be airing a new season of The Bachelorette.

NBC will bring back The Voice.

And Fox will be filling what remains of its trimmed-down prime time schedule with new episodes of its reality shows The Masked Singer and MasterChef Junior.

Fox will also be harnessing one caste of performers that so far have proven to be largely immune from the hazards of Covid-19, namely puppets. On the night of Oct. 1, Fox will be airing Let’s Be Real, an “all-new election-themed puppet special,” executive-produced by Robert Smigel, the creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

Across the board, producers will be coping with new health-compliance needs, higher risks and additional costs. While such genres as home cooking shows can be done in controlled settings with small crews, any program that involves extensive travel or outdoor shots is likely to run into challenges.

Want to shoot a great white shark during the pandemic? It will cost you.

Howard Swartz, an executive who oversees Discovery’s Shark Week, said that over the summer, during the high season for filming great whites in New Zealand and Australia, producers had to adjust to a range of new safety and travel restrictions. Along the way, Discovery’s team ended up needing to commandeer several additional boats in order for its crew to maintain safe social distancing with each other while cozying up to the toothy predators.

All the additional precautions add up. Jody Simon, an entertainment law attorney at Fox Rothschild LLP, said most entertainment production companies are dealing with a 20% bump in costs. “It’s going to be putting more pressure on the producers,” he said.

The one truly new type of programming viewers will see this fall is foreign imports—shows that first aired on networks in other countries.

While streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have been loading up on international shows for years, the broadcast networks had so far abstained—until now.

For this fall, NBC has acquired the rights to re-air Transplant, a Canadian medical drama. Over at CW, viewers will see Devils, a financial drama that was co-produced by Italian and French production companies, which originally aired on Italian TV.

U.S. broadcast networks have been exporting their products to markets around the world for decades. Now, due to the pandemic, the supply chain has essentially reversed direction, potentially introducing millions of Americans to a broader, more diverse bounty of cultural material.

“Everyone sees American shows,” said Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “But Americans never got to see a lot of shows from other places.”

The Other Reality Show: News

On a typical election night, ABC’s news anchor George Stephanopoulos leaves the studio having just told viewers who will be the next president of the United States. That might not happen this year.

Mail-in voting is expected to surge this fall, potentially turning election night into election week or election month.  “We have to be ready for that and condition the public for that possibility,” Stephanopoulos said. “It’s going to be unlike any election we’ve had to deal with before.”

In case the results are delayed, producers at ABC News have made sure their rental equipment doesn’t need to be returned on the day after the election.

Stephanopoulos said he is bracing for a possible repeat of 2000, when a recount in Florida led to chaos on the air and weeks of uncertainty over the winner. This year, he wants to be extremely cautious and avoid such confusion. “We’re not going to make any judgments until we’re as sure as we can be,” Stephanopoulos said.

Already, the pandemic has complicated campaign coverage in ways big and small. For its town hall with President Donald Trump on Sept. 15, ABC News needed to adhere to the space guidelines for indoor locations in Pennsylvania. A week before the event, Marc Burstein, senior executive producer of special events at ABC News, was still trying to figure out whether everyone attending would be tested before entering the building.

“I’ve done many town halls,” said Burstein. “I’ve never had to ask people if they are willing to be tested before they arrive.”

Over at CBS, some correspondents have been forced to quarantine after returning from travel to other states for stories, said CBS News President Susan Zirinsky. “We will not let Covid stop us from reporting this story,” Zirinsky said. “This is the most important election in modern history.”

Recently, broadcast news divisions, which were once seen as losing relevance to their cable rivals, have been seeing a major resurgence. ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir is having its most-watched season in 17 years. For about three months this year, it was the most-watched show on all of television.

In the second quarter, NBC’s Meet the Press, the most-watched of the Sunday morning broadcast shows, saw its audience grow 24%, compared with the same period last year. Audiences for CBS Sunday Morning and ABC News’ This Weekalso grew.

The spike in viewership reflects a news cycle that never seems to catch its breath, as coronavirus developments and protests over racial inequality vie for airtime with election coverage. “The nightly news, in terms of audience, has undergone a renaissance,” said Andrew Tyndall, who publishes The Tyndall Report, a site that analyzes broadcast news.

The networks will be trying to keep the momentum going in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. NBC News has doubled the size of its team dedicated to voting issues. “We’re devoting a historic level of resources to covering election law, voting access and voting rights,” said Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News. “There’s no bigger story in front of us, and we’re making sure we have the experts in-house to help.”

For weeks, CBS News correspondent Major Garrett has been interviewing secretaries of state and county election officials to prepare viewers and podcast listeners for the prospect that the outcome might not be decided on election night. Garrett said he was taken aback when his sources started using the phrase “election week.”

“We have to be patient as a nation, something we’re not accustomed to on election night,” Garrett said.

This fall, after months with little to watch, sports fans will be choosing from an embarrassment of riches.

Never before have competitions in all the major U.S. sports leagues—professional football, basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, tennis and golf—happened at the same time. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, formerly darlings of the late spring and early summer, are staging their championships in the fall for the first time, as are golf and tennis.

The return of sports is a boon for TV networks. Live sports account for the majority of the most-watched broadcasts every year and have only grown more important as more viewers have migrated to on-demand streaming services to watch sitcoms and dramas.

Throughout the fall, sports will help fill programming gaps left by the coronavirus. Yet the logjam has also presented networks—and viewers—with agonizing choices.

“I feel like I’ve been living a parallel life with an air traffic controller for the last couple months,” said Burke Magnus, the executive vice president of programming at ESPN. Magnus is in charge of helping the most-watched sports network in the U.S. navigate an unprecedented period in sports.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Magnus had to schedule a basketball playoff game against the first week of the National Football League. Normally that game would have been shown in the evening, but ESPN airs baseball on Sunday nights in September.

He’s also had to shuffle college football off ABC on a Saturday night, its customary home, in order to make room for an NBA playoff game.

Some Wall Street analysts worry that the sudden bounty of live sports will be too much of a good thing, and that the ratings for most of the events will decline. A compressed NBA schedule means games are airing earlier in the day, when people are still working and less likely to watch. Many who watch one sport also watch another, which means they must make a choice when both sports are on at the same time.

“With only so many eyeballs to go around, the leagues have been forced to compete for attention,” Michael Nathanson, an analyst with MoffettNathanson Research, wrote in a recent note to investors.

Viewership for the National Football League dropped in Week 1. Some of that was because of higher ratings for cable news, driven by the global pandemic and the 2020 election. Some of that was due to losses of fans to the NBA and NHL. The ratings during the second week were not much better.

ESPN’s Magnus dismissed such concerns. In aggregate, people in the U.S. are spending more time watching sports right now than any time since the Super Bowl, the most-watched TV event of the year.

“If you are doing a pro and con list, it’s better to have too much than too little,” Magnus said.

The new rules of production

After months of uncertainty and false starts, TV production recently resumed in the U.S. and in many other countries around the world.

Three of the major broadcast networks—CBS, NBC and ABC— feel confident enough in studios’ abilities to keep everyone safe that they have scheduled the debut of scripted shows in late October and early November.

The sets, which are typically bustling hives of collaboration and creativity, look nothing as they did before the coronavirus. All of the major Hollywood studios and production companies have created safety protocols based on months of conversations with health officials, lawyers, unions and their own employees. While each company has its own set of rules, most of them are fairly similar.

“The biggest risk is when you are shooting,” said Eric Tomosunas, the head of Swirl Films, an Atlanta-based production company. “Our business requires 35 to 60 people, or more, to get together every day. They’d sit down and eat lunch together. They’d eat breakfast together in the morning.”

Productions have had to scale back in-person interactions, dividing everyone into different zones and pods, and limiting access for anyone who isn’t essential. Actors arrive on set and go directly to their trailers. Studio executives, friends and writers don’t just drop by to say hello anymore. Lunches aren’t shared. No one gets a personal make-up artist.

Everyone on set is required to wear masks at all times, and people have been fired from shows for refusing to wear one. Actors are allowed to take them off while the camera is rolling, but are expected to put them back on as soon as someone says “cut.”

Every department is on high alert for the anticipated moment when someone tests positive. The producers and writers realize that if, say, a lead actor tests positive, they may have to adjust the storyline, beefing up the roles of supporting characters.

As a result of all the new requirements, producing TV is now slower, more expensive and a little less fun. Certain shows have already been canceled because of the additional costs. “Budget is a big determining factor in what companies can do,” said Tomosunas.

Every part of Phil McGraw’s work day is different now—from the empty Paramount lot he walks through to the set of Dr. Phil, to the sound of virtual applause.

This fall, the networks will air new episodes of daytime and late night talk shows. Behind the scenes, producers are continuing to adjust to the challenges of staging such gabfests during an ongoing pandemic.

McGraw considers himself lucky. While other parts of the entertainment business remain shuttered, his team has already taped about 40 episodes for the new season, which began airing on Sept. 14 and will run through June. Throughout the fall, viewers will see a slightly scaled-down version of Dr. Phil, which is one of the most popular daytime talk shows.

“Every summer, we meet to kind of reinvent ourselves,” said McGraw. “This summer was different, because we were saying: ‘How can we get back on the set?’”

McGraw spent most of the past six months hunkering down with his team on videoconference calls trying to determine how to reopen Stage 29, the building on the ViacomCBS unit’s lot where he’s filmed his talk show for the past two decades.

From the beginning of the pandemic, he assumed that Season 19 wouldn’t have an in-person audience. A typical Dr. Phil episode includes several guests who are facing a social or mental difficulty. The crowd audibly reacts as McGraw provides counsel. Finding the right virtual crowd software proved to be a major challenge.

Initially, the technology that connected McGraw to the virtual guests was choppy. It echoed, or the conversations seemed stilted and awkward. McGraw said that they eventually figured out the right mix. “We just started debugging it and adding different layers of technology,” he said.

The Covid-19 task force at CBS has prohibited McGraw from flying his guests on commercial planes. This fall, if they want to visit the studio, they’ll have to drive. McGraw said that people have already spent days on the road to see him on set, in person traveling from Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas.

About 80% of the show’s behind-the-scenes staff are now working remotely. The show operates with a skeleton crew in person. Producers are given rapid tests from Cue Health, a company backed by a investor who works with McGraw. The tests produce results in 15 minutes, and McGraw has urged CBS to adopt the technology companywide to supplement its current testing procedures. McGraw said he and his wife Robin McGraw, who sits on the sidelines during every episode, are tested every three days.

McGraw said the entire entertainment industry is still bracing for more tough days ahead. “It’s been very, very difficult because I think there’s been a tremendous amount of ambiguity that maybe some other industries have not had to endure,” said McGraw. “It’s not gonna be, just flip the switch and everything’s back to normal.”