NBCU’s Unscripted Series Overcome COVID Woes to Keep Fans Happy

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread over the past year, many viewers escaped a grim reality with reality TV. Despite shutdowns and challenges, NBCUniversal continued to serve up meals with “Top Chef,” offer glimpses into the lives of “The Real Housewives” and make dreams come true on many shows, such as “The Voice,” “American Ninja Warrior” and “America’s Got Talent,” all in service to fans. Across all of NBCU’s entertainment networks in 2020, viewers consumed 473 billion minutes of unscripted content, according to Nielsen data.

It was important that “The Voice” didn’t skip a beat in entertaining its audience, says Audrey Morrissey, the show’s executive producer.

“We owed it to them to keep on the air when we were all dealing with this unbelievable situation,” she adds.

Likewise, Andy Cohen, executive producer and host of “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen” and executive producer on the “The Real Housewives” franchise, saw the value in keeping those shows going.

“There was really a hunger from fans to see their friends, to see these women again; the fact that we have been able to seamlessly produce those shows and ‘Watch What Happens Live’ has been a great gift,” he says.

That’s not to say it was easy.

“Top Chef” was one of the first shows to resume production after the virus hit, adopting numerous safety protocols, notes Padma Lakshmi, executive producer and host of the culinary competition show.

“I’m amazed at the steadfastness of my crew to get through filming a whole season without a single positive COVID test, and none of it was easy,” she says. “It took a toll on us all, mentally and physically, but we were able to not only put close to 200 people back to work, but also able to mount a wonderful, creatively gratifying season for our millions of loyal fans.”

In fact, Bravo, which airs “Top Chef,” “Real Housewives,” and “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen,” was picked as a top partner during the COVID-19 crisis in a survey of members by NPACT, the trade group that represents non-scripted producers.

When COVID-19 shutdowns hit in March 2020, “The Voice” was in post-production and had just a few weeks to create a plan before the lives began. Ultimately, “The Voice” had feeds from the coaches and the competitors beamed into a video truck and back out to each, so everyone could interact. Producers set up a studio for host Carson Daly in the guest house he was renting.

“It was absolutely crazy, and frankly, up until a half-hour before we went live that night for the results show, I was telling NBC, ‘I’m not sure if we can do this,’” Morrissey recalls. “Carson was having a major delay in his audio. That whole day was riddled with problems and in the end, he was a total pro, and did the entire show with a bad echo in his ear. I don’t know how he did it. But he was flawless.”

Another key challenge was finding the right equipment to transmit the intricacies of a singer’s voice remotely, allowing the celebrity coaches to hear and give advice to vocal proteges. Then came the matter of delivering that equipment to the participants and setting it up. In the end, it worked.

“In some ways, the coaches and our staff felt closer than ever to (the singers) because we were with them in their homes, in their environment,” Morrissey says. “We were meeting their families, their siblings, their parents, who were acting as the camera assistant and lighting people and set decorators.”

“The Real Housewives” series had challenges as well, including COVID-19 infections among the cast and crew on shows from “The Real Housewives of Orange County” to “New York.”

Also, exotic locations — which are key to the aspirational nature of the show —were limited. “You want to go out to places the women are going,” Cohen says. “You want to watch them going to amazing parties and dressing up and going on vacations, so all of that was shifted.”

Ultimately, Cohen notes COVID-19 was like “the person you didn’t invite to the party that showed up,” he adds. “And they were all having to navigate this nasty, unwanted guest.”

Still, the shows didn’t ignore COVID-19.

On “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” that unwanted visitor created some drama.

“We represented the women’s fears about what was happening, misinformation, and then a couple of the women caught the virus,” Cohen says. “So we followed that and we covered it, and it was interesting seeing how our women reacted to it.”

In addition, “Emily’s (Simpson) husband, Shane, was in the hospital [with COVID-19],” Cohen says. “She wasn’t allowed to go in. She was terrified he wasn’t going to make it through the night.”

In contrast, the pandemic provided some lighter moments on “The Voice.” “We tried to make a difficult situation fun,” Morrissey says.

Although the coaches couldn’t hug the singers, as was traditional, they created funny gifts. Gwen Stefani had a T-shirt cannon to deliver shirts to participants. Kelly Clarkson had a “Team Kelly” jacket made. Nick Jonas gave out journals embossed with “Nick’s Notes,” referencing his copious notes. Blake Shelton gave singers cardboard cutouts of his likeness that they could hug. John Legend had a rubber hand at the end of a pole that singers could shake.

“It was just so ridiculous and funny,” Morrissey recalls.

On “Top Chef,” several decisions made to address the limitations of COVID-19 made the show better, Lakshmi says.

“Allowing the company of ‘Top Chef’ alumni at every meal made filming much more fun and gave us an additional nuanced perspective at Judges’ Table,” she says.

“The Voice” is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, and “The Real Housewives” and “Top Chef” have both been in production for 15 years. Each show has proven resilient.

And the fans appreciated the continuity.

“Families would watch [‘The Voice’] and say, ‘Thank you so much. This is like the one bright spot of normalcy in this otherwise very [abnormal] world,’” Morrissey says.

As Cohen sums up, “At its best, [‘The Real Housewives’] is a great escape for people, and it remained so. It’s something that we could latch on to, that kind of represents seeing your old friends again.”

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