Making TV During a Pandemic: How TLC, ‘Vice,’ and Others Rose to the Challenge

What can shows that never stopped producing teach bigger studios as they try to navigate unpredictable waters? 
Cast of "90 Day Fiance: Self-Quarantine"
Cast of "90 Day Fiance: Self-Quarantine"

As Hollywood struggles to figure out how to return to filmmaking in the wake of the pandemic, television production has been quicker to adapt. Shows like “Saturday Night Live” embraced Zoom, while the Apple TV+ series “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” pulled off an entire episode based on being quarantined. But how quick has the adaptation process truly been for certain shows, and why have some been affected less than before? More importantly, what can shows that never stopped producing content teach bigger studios as they navigate unpredictable waters?

The first series to continue shooting after stay-at-home orders were enacted was the Facebook Watch talk show “Red Table Talk.” Hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith and her family, the series benefited from having much of its production rigging already in place. As Ellen Rakieten, executive producer of “Red Table Talk,” told IndieWire, the production stayed on top of current events, making plans from the moment large group gatherings were prohibited. Once it turned to limiting groups of 10 people, the show completed its first coronavirus-themed episode.

But, really, aside from working primarily at home, Rakieten said little has changed in how they actually produce “Red Table Talk.” “From day one [we] set it up to be as [un]intrusive to their daily lives as possible,” she said, and that helped everyone keep production flowing. The lighting grids and cameras were already in place at the Smith compound with the control room in the garage. And because of the “extensive” size of the location, people can pick up footage without coming into contact with anyone else.

“On days that we’re taping, one person can go in and turn on a switch with a mask on, and then leave,” she said. The biggest challenge ends up being communication between the different post-production departments, spread out over different areas.

The physical distance of people ends up being the hardest part for many productions. For Brian Volk-Weiss, director of Netflix’s “The Toys That Made Us” and the new YouTube series “A Toy Store Near You,” where once all post-production needs were located in one building, he now has spread out his crew between “three-dozen homes and apartments over a 75-mile radius.” But he’s not complaining, as he said it only feels about two-percent less efficient than before.

It’s amazing to realize the proliferation of technology already in place that has allowed unscripted shows and news to easily pivot into limited contact between employees and subjects, and in some cases to create entirely new shows out of the switch. In the case of “90 Day Fiancé,” TLC’s most popular series, they were able to quickly conjure the idea of documenting their subjects as they navigate quarantine for the series “90 Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantined.”

“Our subjects wear their hearts on their sleeve anyway and open their lives to us, so it seemed like a natural extension,” said Gabriela Tavakoli Bailey, VP of production and executive producer for the “90 Day” franchise. Considering the couples on the show already spend a large amount of time communicating with loved ones via FaceTime, it was fairly easy to provide them with rigs and let them self-shoot.

The method of self-shooting has come to dominate unscripted television production in the last three months. Rakieten said, “If Jada wanted to go turn on the cameras right now and shoot a ‘Red Table Talk’ on her own, she could.” The ease with which one can shoot a television episode or film has always been a possibility (Sean Baker’s iPhone-filmed “Tangerine” comes to mind). But with a need to protect crew and subjects, the ability to provide a subject with an iPhone or tablet and train them on filmmaking feels revolutionary. In the case of “90 Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantine,” Bailey said each subject either recorded off their own phone or an iPhone provided to them, and immediately after filming would upload the footage to the editor. An expedited editing process for the raw footage took place before it went to air.

Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith
“Red Table Talk”Facebook Watch

Volk-Weiss crafted a production kit to give to his subjects, with the goal of creating several more before June 15. “Each of these kits has [two] industrial strength tablets, two tripods, lighting rigs, audio recording system,” he said. In the case of “A Toy Store Near You,” each subject was shipped a kit and through Zoom would be taught by Volk-Weiss’ crew on the best way to obtain a shot.

“Remotely we can look at the images, check the audio levels [and] make sure everything’s perfect.” This is especially helpful to limit contact between crew and subjects. Volk-Weiss would be able to give each subject a list of needed shots and pre-written interview questions to keep everyone distant.

But what if you’re covering the actual news? How does one stay safe and continue to report? Such is the case with Showtime’s “VICE,” which has been routinely covering COVID-related stories. The reporters on the series are no strangers to entering conflict zones and disease-stricken countries, but the lack of information about the virus made the entire VICE crew worry about themselves and the subjects they were interviewing. “We’ve always had to deal with risk mitigation because we go into conflict zones and spend a large portion of our time in real hostile environments,” said Subrata De, VICE’s senior executive producer.

Because so many of the reporters are regularly out in the field, it wasn’t necessarily a question of protecting a central office  though VICE was one of the first companies to implement work-from-home procedures and their office is deep-cleaned daily. On top of all that, De said “we have a whole sanitization process around the gear itself.” Anyone returning a camera must leave it on a table at the front of VICE’s offices — which are closed to only essential staff — where it sits for three days. The office is cleaned daily, staff work off hard drives and not in screening rooms, and daily Zoom chats abound.

De said the question of what to do if a staff member were to contract the disease was paramount in their discussions from day one. “We have had to have conversations around that. ‘Are you willing to risk anybody else’s health and, secondly, are you going to risk your own?'”  Because of issues of privacy, it’s unknown whether any of the subjects or production staff have come down with the virus.

With cities starting to open up and near-daily discussions about how Hollywood filmmaking will work in a world of social-distancing, how can these series set an example? For Volk-Weiss, he said regardless of the technological prowess, standard crews won’t be replaced anytime soon, but items like his production kits become “another tool in our arsenal.” It’s possible they could allow for fewer people on a crew, a smaller budget, and a smaller chance of exposure.

Rakieten said, speaking for her series, the ability to utilize Zoom means the need for in-person interviews can expand. If a subject doesn’t or can’t travel, it doesn’t mean they’ll never be on the show. “There’s just so much more flexibility now,” she said. Rakieten also explained that many actors who do voice-work or films with heavy VFX have always limited their time together. “You’ve got lots of creative people out there, and they’ll figure it out!”

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