Pandemic anniversary: How COVID-19 changed how TV was made, and what we watched

Pandemic life has officially been stranger than fiction for a year. 

This week unofficially marks the one year-anniversary of the pandemic for many Americans. Although the virus had been circulating for months, it was a year ago when many states issued stay-at-home orders, when schools closed, when the NBA suspended its season, when Tom Hanks announced he had COVID-19, and when much of Hollywood production shut down. 

For the movie business, the pandemic changed everything rapidly. Theaters were shuttered, and major releases were delayed or eventually released via streaming – Warner Bros. is releasing its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max, at the same time as a limited theatrical release.

On TV, the changes came more slowly, but they were no less monumental. Shows were delayed or canceled and streaming services blossomed. But months after TV production shut down, the pipeline of content slowed and streamers and cable networks with long lead times are finally feeling the pinch.

In January, CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl acknowledged the adjustments required to survive an “unprecedented and strange year,” and suggested that changes to broadcast’s traditional programming strategy, such as ordering new dramas "The Equalizer" and "Clarice" without filming pilot episodes, will extend beyond the pandemic.

“We've obviously learned to be flexible. We figured out how to shoot a series without an audience and without a couple hundred crew people tightly gathered around the set.”

As vaccines begin to be distributed around the country and the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel appears slightly brighter, we took stock of what has changed forever in the television industry, what might go back to “normal” and what stayed the same, pandemic or not.

Kaley Cuoco stars as Cassie in "The Flight Attendant," one of many shows delayed by the pandemic.

Shorter seasons and year-round programming

The production shutdown led networks to delayed and sometimes shortened seasons for shows, including NBC's "This Is Us," HBO Max's “The Flight Attendant,” the final episodes of CW's “Supernatural” and HBO's "Euphoria," among many others. The final season of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," due in March, won't even start filming until next month, and won't air at least until fall. The much-hyped “Friends” cast reunion, planned for last spring, also hasn't happened. And for the first time in decades, there was no traditional fall-season launch in September for the broadcast networks. This spring, fewer pilot episodes for potential new series are being made, as programmers remain more willing to commission new series based on scripts and casting alone. Much like streamers, the pandemic hastened the spread of traditional TV programming year-round, a change that may become more permanent.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Americans streamed more movies and TV shows and increased subscriptions to, on average, five streaming services including Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.

Streaming services benefit

Peak TV was supposed to have crested by now, but the number of outlets to stream shows keeps expanding. In the past year,  Peacock, Discovery+ and Paramount+ joined recent startups Apple TV+, Disney+ and established streamers Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, among others. Too many? Not for a pandemic year that made us all shut-ins, searching for the next show to binge, which accelerated the adoption of these new services. Discovery lured 12 million subscribers in its first month, and Netflix surpassed 200 million worldwide. "As summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter, Americans have once again found themselves in front of their screens with few (TV) options aside from live news and sports and an unlimited bouquet of increasingly excellent streaming content choices," wrote analyst Michael Nathanson.

"Stumptown" was one of several shows "unrenewed" by TV networks and streaming services as the pandemic shut down Hollywood production.

Great shows gone too soon

The pandemic introduced a new term to the TV industry: The unrenewal. Series like Netflix’s “GLOW,” “The Society” and “I Am Not Okay with This”; ABC’s “Stumptown”; Comedy Central’s “Drunk History”; TruTv’s “I’m Sorry,” and Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” all saw promised new seasons canceled as a direct result of COVID-19, their networks said. The decisions were both budgetary and practical: The intimate and physical nature of some series became one problem too many for filming amid COVID protocols that urge social distancing. But the fact that so many "unrenewed" series were made or led by women was disappointing, considering the inequalities in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood. 

Chris Sullivan as Toby and Chrissy Metz as Kate in "This Is Us," which includes the COVID-19 pandemic in its storylines.

The pandemic works its way into TV storylines

When some programs returned after production delays, their characters were wearing masks. Several series, including ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," NBC's "Law and Order: SVU," "Superstore" and "This Is Us" and CBS' "All Rise," made the pandemic part of their fictional worlds. "Grey's" portrayed life at a hospital during the height of the pandemic, with burnt-out doctors at risk for infection. "Superstore," which centers on employees at a big-box store, found cathartic humor showing its frontline workers facing COVID-19 on every shift.

Fewer exteriors...

If you've noticed fewer outdoor or other location scenes in your favorite recent shows, you're not alone. For safety reasons, some studios put the brakes on elaborate set-ups, which require more time, money and precautionary measures, especially in a pandemic. COVID-19 protocols forced producers to spend as much as 30% more to produce the same number of episodes, so the cutbacks helped save money in other ways. And some Hollywood execs say such moves could become more permanent. 

...And less kissing 

COVID-19 restrictions, especially social distancing, have directly affected what viewers see in other ways, from intimate scenes in daytime soap operas – actors' spouses stood in as romantic partners – to police shows. CW's "Walker" had to use computer graphics to approximate spit. “Now, there’s a lot of things we can’t do," “S.W.A.T.” star Shemar Moore said in January. "There’s no love scenes. We can’t do hand-to-hand combat because of the physicality of being close. We’ve had to limit the scale of action we’re used to doing."

Almost all awards shows are down substantially in viewership, but the Globes rating drop is steeper.

Awards shows are ratings losers

Awards shows attempted to make do with virtual ceremonies that followed COVID-19 safety measures, but couldn't come close to matching pre-pandemic audiences. They were hurt by the lack of red-carpet fashions and unfamiliar movie titles, as theaters remained closed in much of the country. Emmys ratings sunk to a record low 6.1 million viewers, while last month’s Golden Globes  fell to just 6.9 million viewers, plunging 64% from its last telecast in January 2020, worrying producers that Sunday's Grammys and the Oscars (on April 25) will suffer, too.

LeAnn Rimes (with host Nick Cannon) was revealed as the winner Season 4 of "The Masked Singer," but with no studio audience, Fox faked it with old footage.

Faking a crowd

Awards show hosts weren’t the only ones playing to empty arenas. Sporting events used cardboard cutouts of fans to fill empty venues. The NFL used artificial crowd noise, while talk shows, "America's Funniest Home Videos" and the NBA employed fans in Zoomed-in audiences. And Fox’s “The Masked Singer” inserted old footage of live audiences to make it seem like an engaged (and mask-free) crowd was cheering on its costumed contestants.

Joe Exotic appears in "Tiger King."

Pandemic winners

The early months of the pandemic turned oddball true-crime and reality shows into necessary comfort food. Netflix's "Tiger King" was one of the streaming platform’s top docuseries for the year, along with “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez.” Innovative dating shows “Love is Blind” and “Too Hot To Handle” also had chemistry with viewers.

There's no stopping reality competitions 

Reality competitions adapted more nimbly than scripted series, as NBC's "America's Got Talent" moved production outdoors, ABC's "American Idol" sent camera equipment to finalists' homes and CBS' "Big Brother" enlisted an all-star cast, enabling all of them to stick close to their planned schedules. Others, such as ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" went audience-free and arrived on time, but "The Bachelorette" waited until fall. 

Queen Latifah as Robyn McCall in "The Equalizer."

The most popular shows are still popular  

 NFL games still top the Nielsen ratings, and procedural dramas led by CBS' "NCIS" and "FBI" and NBC's "Chicago" trio remained the most-watched scripted shows, along with just-renewed newcomer "The Equalizer," which got a post-Super Bowl bump. .