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Production cliff-edge forces TV industry to plunder the past

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BROADCASTERS are having a hard time trying to replace canceled sporting events and live-action TV with something people want to watch.

Their plight will only worsen in coming months, when documentaries and scripted programs that couldn’t be made because of the coronavirus would normally begin to hit screens. Some filming has resumed, but most of the industry is still in limbo because producers can’t get insurance for shoots and many crews and actors can’t or won’t travel.

So network commissioners are heading back in time — piecing together new shows out of clips from old programs and movies, newscasts, interviews, documentaries, footage of major events, and random shots of people and places.

Producer Dan Sharp was about to begin shooting a follow-up season of Disasters Engineered when the UK went into lockdown. Suddenly, his production company SWR Media could no longer travel the globe in search of material for the show about high-profile engineering projects that went wrong.

“We needed a solution to still get this thing done and fundamentally get it done at the same quality level, not some coronavirus version of the season,” said Mr. Sharp.

One result is that season two relies more heavily than the first on material from Getty Images, owner of the world’s biggest commercial film archive.

Another problem was finding a way to do interviews in other countries while in lockdown: Zoom or Skype won’t make the cut for shows likely to be aired after the pandemic subsides.

As Sharp’s team couldn’t jump on a plane, they decided to hire local crews with professional equipment, dressing them in personal protective equipment and directing each interview over a laptop. It’s an innovation he hopes will become permanent.

“Last Friday I did five interviews — one in Japan, two in Chicago and two in Florida,” said Mr. Sharp. “I said to myself ‘That would have been a week’s work with all the traveling and all we’re doing is dialing in and dialing out.’”

NOSTALGIA VIEWING
Getty Images is working with several TV companies that have pivoted to using more archive content, said Paul Davis, its senior EMEA sales director.

“We’ve become almost an extension to the creative teams at production companies to help them create dramatic and inspiring narratives,” he said.

ITV Plc, Britain’s biggest free-to-air commercial broadcaster, developed a program that spotlights former stars of Coronation Street, the country’s longest-running TV soap opera, using interviews and clips from old episodes.

STV Productions made a series for Channel 5 about the British royal family’s fractious relationship with the tabloid media that relied on licensed archive and news footage from the past 60 years and fresh interviews conducted remotely using iPhones.

A+E Networks UK, which owns channels including Sky History and Blaze, got producer CIC Media to turn a show commemorating the 75th anniversary of the allied victory in Europe into Race to Victory, a six-part series about the relationship between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin filled out with reams of archive material.

“What’s interesting about lockdown viewing is there’s a clear appetite for nostalgia viewing and escapism,” said Dan Korn, vice-president of programming at A+E Networks UK.

A+E Networks has even dipped into social media in search of material, commissioning a show about Alec Steele, a 22-year-old English blacksmith who took his business to the wilds of Montana. The producer of Forged With Steele, Studio 71, repackaged footage from Steele’s mostly self-filmed YouTube show.

While broadcasters are keen to turn a page on the pandemic, partly under pressure from advertisers looking for more upbeat content, the mood across UK TV production is still desperate. Government furlough support is starting to wind down and around 1,000 visual effects workers — about an eighth of that sector’s entire workforce — are at risk of redundancy by August, according to Neil Hatton, chief executive officer at the UK Screen Alliance.

“Everything I hear from most production companies is that it’s just your worst nightmare,” said Alex DeGroote, an independent media consultant and analyst. “There’s a sense that some aspects of the production industry cycle are beginning to normalize, but it feels fragile. Another coronavirus spike in the US in particular could put everything into reverse.” — Bloomberg





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