ABC News reporter Will Reeve became the subject of a story himself when, during an appearance last week on “Good Morning America,” a poorly positioned camera revealed his risky choice of attire. Perhaps that should be qualified — bare legs are a perfectly safe option for when someone on the other side of the camera can guarantee they aren’t in the shot. Unfortunately, Reeve acted as his own operator.
“I’m surprised there haven’t been more cases like that,” senior executive producer Michael Corn said about Reeve’s shorts flub, which circulated online. “But Will’s a great guy, and he was very funny about it. It’s just the nature of the beast right now. There’s a reason we have technical experts in the field, usually.”
GMA is among many television programs nationwide to continue production during the covid-19 pandemic, which has required an unprecedented amount of remote, isolated work. News anchors, talk show hosts and reality stars now moonlight as their own camera operators and lighting technicians. Producers accustomed to reacting to footage in person must now jump through extra communication hoops. So much spaghetti has been thrown at the wall, it’s practically wallpaper.
But even with the occasional error or sacrifice in camera quality, programs have largely been able to pull it off. Audiences have been more understanding, according to several television producers, but production teams, from the stars to the writers to the editors, have adapted to keeping up with a situation that changes by the day.
“There’s no gold standard,” said Deirdre Connolly, an executive producer on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen.” “This is the first time anyone’s leaning into this sort of technology for broadcast, certainly in this capacity. We’re making sure that what we’re doing is what feels right for us.”
The initial plan for host Andy Cohen to shoot “Watch What Happens Live” from home was derailed almost immediately by his testing positive for the novel coronavirus. He made the decision to return to the show at the end of March, using his computer camera, a separate microphone and an iPad teleprompter. The host has been a “one-man band,” Connolly said. No one from the show has been in or out of his house.
Cohen’s guests have turned to whatever tech they have on hand, be it a microphone or AirPods; producers are left to cross their fingers that the WiFi connections are up to par. (They upgraded Cohen’s service but can’t do the same for each guest: “I hate to sell Jerry O’Connell out, but his WiFi was terrible,” Connolly laughed.) As with Cohen, the guests video-chat with producers directly to set up their individual shoots. Sorry for the hassle, Patti LuPone, but would you mind refreshing that window once more?
Other programs have a mixed setup. According to a recent Deadline report, “The Voice” plans to return to its studio with host Carson Daly and a smaller staff of about 30 other temperature-screened people, as opposed to the ordinary 450. The coaches will record their portion of the show live from home, similar to how “American Idol” judges operated last month during the show’s first completely remote episode. And contestants, who will be prerecording their performances, “received production kits with state-of-the-art camera and audio equipment.”
“Good Morning America” anchors Michael Strahan and Amy Robach still report to the Times Square studio, which remains open to select staff for control room access. Colleagues including Robin Roberts, Lara Spencer, Ginger Zee and George Stephanopoulos, who also tested positive for coronavirus, have been broadcasting from home. Producers sent them lights and “prosumer” cameras — which are of professional quality but easier to use — to set up.
“For the most part, they’ve done a pretty good job,” Corn said. “Lara, at one point, there was a morning where she was shooting everything sideways. We didn’t understand how she managed to do that.”
Shows that shut down their studios — and therefore lack the technology of their control rooms — have learned to use different software to keep things running. Connolly said the company “Watch What Happens Live” normally uses for live broadcasting, Megaphone TV, has now been helping with video conferencing as well.
Video conferencing has been vital to remote production, and many programs have also come to rely on the now-ubiquitous platform Zoom. Though the midseason finale aired last week, the stars of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” have been using Zoom to film virtual family dinners that will figure into episodes this fall. Though the show is largely shot by professionals on Sony’s F55 and FS5 cameras, the Kardashian-Jenners are accustomed to “self-shooting,” as longtime executive producer Farnaz Farjam phrased it. Their cellphone footage has made its way into episodes before, such as when Kim Kardashian West filmed a fight between her sister Kourtney and their mother’s boyfriend.
“They’re executive producers themselves, so we lean on them as well,” Farjam said. “I’m always like, we’re so lucky that our cast really understands lighting, really cares about angles.”
Producers mailed the family production kits consisting of additional iPhones, tripods and ring lights as soon as they began self-isolating. About two weeks in, they dressed the director of photography and a member of the lighting team in protective gear — “full hazmat suits, gloves, masks, the whole nine,” per Farjam — and sent them to each residence so they could set up an area to film the show’s confessional interviews. They chose a room, wiped down the gear, set it up, wiped it down again, set down instructions and sprayed everything with Lysol. The family members waited at least 24 hours before entering.
From the looks of it, the major networks’ late-night hosts have setups similar to the Kardashian-Jenners’s confessional rooms, or to what GMA sent its remote anchors. Jimmy Fallon is an outlier, as he and his wife, producer Nancy Juvonen, have been shooting “The Tonight Show” on what showrunner Gavin Purcell calls “low-fi” tech, such as an iPad. After scrambling a bit during the week in mid-March “where nobody really knew what was happening,” they decided on a simpler setup.
“We wanted to make sure it didn’t feel too glossy,” Purcell said. “One of the things I keep coming back to with these shows is, there is a real authenticity that I think people have been trying to get at for a while, because you see people in their real environments.”
The biggest difference in producing from home has been the editing process, Purcell added. Watching a show in real time, there’s a clearer idea of what to cut or what to add to hit that 43-minute sweet spot; in the studio, they can have Fallon interact with the audience, or ask the Roots to play for a bit. Now, the team has to get more creative with how to cushion Fallon’s Zoom interviews.
Remote production is difficult and draining, but multiple producers pointed to the same silver lining: As a creative person, Purcell said, the restrictions have helped him rethink how his team operates.
“There are systems we had before that are good and coming in handy, but there are new systems that are popping up all the time, too,” he said. “I think it’s going to change us for the better in the long term. There’s no way we go back to the studio and produce the show the same way we did before. We’ve learned too much.”