The future of reality TV: How will shows adapt to the pandemic?

Taryn Ryder
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
How will reality shows adapt to a coronavirus pandemic world? (Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic brought the entertainment industry to a screeching halt three months ago with most of the U.S. under stay-at-home orders. Clare Crawley didn’t get the chance to fall in love (or not) this spring on The Bachelorette. Fans have no idea how Vanderpump Rules is shaping up as the show nears production minus Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute. Contestants had to stop racing around the U.K. with the 33rd season of the Amazing Race indefinitely stalled.

As the world opens back up, so too is Hollywood. But for a genre like reality TV, which relies on travel, hookups, competition and spontaneous fighting, some shows will have to change. Others will be relatively unaffected — especially if you film on an island.

Banijay Group is one of the first distribution companies to ramp up international production amid the pandemic. Carlotta Rossi Spencer, senior VP for format acquisitions, tells Yahoo Entertainment that Temptation Island is on track to shoot the Spain, Germany, Finland, Holland and U.S. versions this summer with heightened safety and security guidelines. All broadcasters are on board, making it one of the first reality shows to confirm it will film with a quarantined cast and crew.

“We will be testing everyone — this means the crew, the cast, every single person on the show — before for [COVID-19],” Spencer says, adding that everyone will be quarantined for 14 days before production begins and will be “tested constantly” throughout filming. The crew will all have PPE, like masks and gloves, and areas will be regularly disinfected. There will also be a health supervisor on set. These “macro” guidelines will be instituted on all productions.  

Temptation Island places four couples in a sexy, remote destination along with attractive single people who are all looking for love. Spencer says the show’s premise helps ensure the cast and crew can film in a safe environment.

“The good thing about Temptation is they are in villas,” Spencer says. “They do go on dates, they do have one-on-ones, but you can have them stay on the beach where they have been during the day, which means less risks because we’re not traveling anywhere else. You’re not getting into a car, you’re not going to a restaurant. So, there is a lot of wonderful content you can create without putting anyone at risk.”

The German version will film in Europe, possibly in Croatia, and aims to shoot in August. Finland is set to begin production later this month in Finland, and the Spanish version hopes to film in July in the Dominican Republic. With COVID-19 travel restrictions constantly changing, the Dominican Republic could serve as a “hub,” Spencer says, and “other territories could use that location once Spain is finished.” 

“The show doesn’t change,” she notes. “It is about tempting, it is about testing your relationship, so the cast itself will do exactly what has been done before.”

And, yes, that still includes lots of kissing.

When asked if there’s any directive for cast members to tone down PDA amid the pandemic, Spencer says, “Nope.” Since everyone will be locked down together she explains it will be a safe environment.  

If production companies can safely transport a cast and crew to a remote destination and quarantine there, Survivor also has a good shot at continuing on in its usual format amid the pandemic. Yahoo Entertainment spoke with reality TV star Corinne Kaplan, a two-time Survivor alum, who explains why.

“Doing Survivor wouldn't be risky with respect to COVID because you are 100 percent contained. Unless you’ve won a reward challenge, you have no contact with the outside world,” Kaplan says. “The only exception would be the family visit, and your family members could be tested. The rewards could easily not include contact with other people.”

Kaplan, who competed on Survivor: Gabon and Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites, says the show already had good safety measures in place pre-COVID-19. For example, the crew doesn’t directly touch contestants.

“When we are miked up for challenges, the team wears gloves. You are also checked by a doctor after every challenge,” she says. “It’s a very safe environment with respect to COVID, in general.”

In contrast, CBS’s other hit competition series The Amazing Race faces some challenges. Kaplan, who competed on The Amazing Race in 2019, says from her experience the show “seems impossibly hard to do.”  

“I can't imagine how they could protect you,” she says. “You are literally racing around the world and relying on talking to other people while you do. Also, you would have to be wearing a mask for almost all of it. That would make it nearly impossible to see any facial expressions, thereby significantly lessening the entertainment value of the show. I also have no idea how you would clearly hear someone, on a mic, with a mask on. All that being said, I am a die-hard Amazing Race fan, and I would say yes to that again in a heartbeat. I would wear a head-to-toe hazmat suit if they wanted me to! I'm just not sure anyone wants to watch me amble through airports, cursing and sweating in that.”

In March, CBS announced Survivor was delaying production on Season 41 in Fiji, which was set to begin filming that month, and aimed to shoot in May. It was delayed again, and a source close to production tells Yahoo Entertainment travel restrictions have been making it “tricky” — especially as cases in the United States spike. The network says both shows will return at some point.

“In terms of Survivor and The Amazing Race, we’ll get those into production as soon as we can safely get back into production. That’s going to be a little more complicated because we literally have to navigate some international waters,” CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl told Deadline. He added the network is confident Big Brother and Love Island will film this summer.

Kaplan says that it makes sense as some reality shows “absolutely” have better setups for a pandemic than others.

Big Brother has to be one of the easiest because it is so contained,” she notes. “The issue becomes when the contestants are taken out and about. So, for example, those dates you see on The Bachelor, they would have to figure out how to film those and disinfect those locations.”  

As for the ABC’s popular Bachelor franchise — in which global travel and hot tub make-outs are a staple — Crawley’s season of The Bachelorette was postponed. Production was shut down in March, one day before the limo-arrivals scene was set to tape. But there is hope for Crawley and Matt James, who was just named the first Black Bachelor in the show’s 40-season history.

ABC executive Rob Mills told Ryan Seacrest that Crawley’s season should shoot next month. The cast and crew will be confined to one location and essentially quarantined for the duration of the shoot, with COVID-19 testing going on throughout production.”

“Here’s what we’re going to do: For Clare’s season, which is going to come first, that’s going to shoot in about a month,” Mills said. “Everybody is going to be at one location. Everybody is going to be tested a week before. Everybody comes back negative, we shoot, and they’re inside that bubble.”

He added: “They won’t be at the Bachelor mansion. They’ll be at some sort of resort, and we’ve scouted several of them and all of them have been scouted for good date locations. We had incredible travel planned for Clare’s season. We were going to Italy — all these places were going to be great — but there will be plenty of different date locations that will feel hopefully as close to The Bachelorette as possible.”

Variety reported on Friday the Bachelorette is heading back into production with a source saying, “The cast will start traveling very soon because there has to be a quarantine period.”

While each reality show is different, there’s a clear blueprint emerging for production companies: The cast and crew are all tested for COVID-19, they quarantine for 14 days, and there are regimented safety protocols and testing throughout production. But how will that work on shows in the Bravo-verse when the cast and crew can’t isolate in one location for the duration of filming? 

Yahoo Entertainment spoke with executive producer Michael Beck, president at Bishop Peak Productions, who has worked on a number of Bravo shows including The Real Housewives of New York City, The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Married to Medicine

“All their shows are so different I don’t think there’s a blanket way to shoot their shows safely,” he explains. “I think it’s a very case-by-case basis, especially as different cities have different restrictions.” However, Beck says it’s “absolutely” doable in the coming months, and production companies will adapt by implementing their own safety guidelines. 

When it comes to the Housewives franchise, in which international trips and wine-throwing dinner parties are cornerstones, he believes both can still safely happen — producers will just have to get creative.

“They’ll have to figure out ways to have all cast dinners, group events or possibly go on a trip. I highly, highly doubt we’re going to see any international trips this year. But there could be road trips or domestic trips,” he theorizes. “To be honest, if you just get the girls together you can literally put them in a cabin in the woods and they’re going go crazy. It’s just causing [producers] to be a lot more creative with what to do.”

The first few weeks of production on shows like Real Housewives, Vanderpump Rules and Married to Medicine are spent at cast homes, which can allow people to safely quarantine. It might also help kill time as some cities like Los Angeles and New York are slowly lifting restrictions, making location shoots possible.  

“The good thing about these shows is the first couple of weeks you spend a lot of time in cast members’ homes, just catching up with them. So you can kind of spend a couple of weeks doing that, going from cast member to cast member before you need to get them together in a group,” Beck notes. “Once you start up, I think you can safely have a dinner party with your cast.”

Beck says he and other producers he knows are eager to start working as long as things are done safely.

“There will be a lot of changes, a lot of hurdles to jump through and changes about how we shoot a show,” he shares, noting, “I think everybody is pretty anxious to get back to work.”

In order to ensure cast and crew safety, Beck says a lot of production companies are seeking outside counsel.

“I think everybody’s just talking to their own legal departments and figuring out what the process is. I know that a lot of production companies are hiring risk-assessment teams, so they have special firms to come in and tell them exactly the process,” he says.

Yahoo Entertainment consulted with Heidi Reavis and Nicole Page, partners at the law firm Reavis Page Jump, who say they are “highly recommending” production companies “get a COVID consultant on board.”

“Sets are hectic places, and we are telling clients that they need a designated person overseeing social distancing, PPE, et cetera. The problem is that many broadcasters in the nonfiction space won’t pay for that. It’s very problematic in our view,” Page says.

That’s in line with what multiple reality TV production sources have told Yahoo Entertainment: that major networks are leaving it up to production companies to come up with specialized shooting and safety plans. 

“I don’t think [these networks] want the responsibility if something does happen — if a cast member or someone on the crew gets sick — I don’t think they want any part in responsibility of it all, so it’s the production company’s responsibility,” one source who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Yahoo. “It’s a weird time because production companies are looking at [the network] like, What do we do here? What do you want us to do?”

“It seems like [these networks] we work with just don’t want to assume any risk,” a second source, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Yahoo. “It’s been really stressful.”

Page and Reavis have seen that happen to production companies they work with.

“Broadcasters are happy for the production companies to produce the content and assume all the risk even though they are the ones least able to bear the risk,” Page says. “Also they would seem to have an ethical obligation to provide for a point person to keep everyone safe. It’s a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach. If everyone starts getting sick again, production will have to shut back down again.”

“Even more burdens are being foisted on the production companies that actually produce what the broadcasters show,” Reavis adds. “Pre-COVID budgets don’t account for COVID consultants, and a lot of production companies are just having to figure this out on their own. Those that can afford it may hire legal or third-party risk consultants for an added layer of advice and protection. All this adds expense, usually borne by the production company, dealing from a budget that may be slim to begin with.”

Reavis and Page’s firm is working closely with its clients and broadcasters to produce field and safety guidelines. 

“We know that everyone wants guidelines to be as granular and protective as possible. At the same time, there is a natural tension between safety guidelines on paper and what happens in the field,” Reavis says. “Field and safety guidelines in the COVID-era are much more specific now in terms of crew distance, space within vehicles, physical contact with objects and personal information disclosure.”

Reavis says it’s been hard because “rules are changing so rapidly and differently according to state and federal laws.”

“For example, some states such as Alaska mandated a 14-day quarantine period for people entering the state – you can imagine that interferes with productions in ways not foreseen, in terms of staffing or a budget,” Reavis continues. “We’ve had good experiences with broadcasters such as Discovery Animal Planet and A&E in appreciating these challenges and working together hand in glove to achieve protocols that are both realistic and ensure crew safety. But it’s a challenge. And not every production company or series will be able to cope with fast-changing COVID requirements with rising COVID costs and falling pre-COVID budgets.”

“Producers want to protect their people,” Reavis emphasizes, adding it has been difficult for production companies to balance “what is required with what is desired in terms of worker safety while coming in on or at least near a budget set before COVID.”

Another curveball for producers could be whether the pandemic will affect casting and people’s willingness to go on reality TV at all — but Yahoo’s experts don’t anticipate a shortage of folks wanting to film.

Kaplan says people who want to be on TV “won’t be discouraged by the threat of a pandemic” because everyone who goes on reality shows are “all a little nuts.”

“The pandemic looming over them might even make them crazier than usual — and better TV. Your favorite shows won’t suffer from a lack of contestants!” she says. “I’m also acutely aware of what a rewarding and incredible experience doing reality TV can be. So, I would say for me, the benefit outweighs the risk.”

Beck adds that Kaplan is “absolutely right.”

“It takes a certain kind of crazy to be on reality TV in general and I think also — this is a lot of people’s livelihoods,” he emphasizes. “They need that paycheck just as much as we do.”

In fact, Spencer tells Yahoo the U.S. cast of Temptation Island is “raring to go.” Production was set to begin in Hawaii in March, and everyone is still on board, she says, and more eager than ever for human interaction.

“I was talking to another producer today who’s shooting Married at First Sight, and she said they could feel the hormones of these people right away,” Spencer says with a laugh. “They are out of isolation and ready! I think with Temptation, it’s going to be extremely interesting to see how the couples behave and the singles behave.”

If anything, the reality TV genre might find some new fans — and shows — amid the pandemic.

“Nobody wants to see COVID-related anything; it’s depressing to viewers,” Beck says. “People are craving comedy and mindless television that they can watch. Audiences are craving content. A lot of networks have spent this time developing new shows and are ready to pull the trigger as soon as we get the clear. There’s going to be so many new shows because there’s been a lot of selling and developing going on while this is happening.”

Bravo’s stockpile seems to be dwindling with these Real Housewives reruns, so people are certainly ready.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: