Live Audiences Slow to Return

Wendy Williams
Tapings of New York-based Wendy Williams were at 75% by July 1, with hopes of going to full capacity before production of the season concludes. (Image credit: Jason DeCrow/The Wendy Williams Show)

When the pandemic shut down all in-studio production in March 2020, live studio audiences also, by necessity, went away. While most shows returned to their studios last September with skeleton crews, audiences have not yet come back except in a few instances.

New York City allowed audiences to return starting June 1, but most syndicated shows were out of production for the season by then. Los Angeles, hard hit by COVID-19 as well, has also been careful about allowing groups of people to convene. Production across the country is governed by an agreement hammered out last September between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), representing major studios, networks and streamers, and the Directors Guild of America, IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, the Teamsters and Basic Crafts. 

Wendy has very devoted fans, which speaks to her popularity in New York. We didn’t anticipate problems and so far we haven’t had any.”

Lonnie Burstein, Debmar-Mercury

Debmar-Mercury’s Wendy Williams, produced in New York City, is one show to which live audiences — albeit smaller ones —- have returned. The show started by seating an audience in its New York studio at about one-third capacity, or 40 people. As of July 1, the show was seating about 90 people per taping, up to 75% capacity, and producers hope to return to 100% capacity — as long as union and public-health guidelines allow for it — before Wendy Williams concludes production for the season in mid-July.

“Wendy has very devoted fans, which speaks to her popularity in New York,” Lonnie Burstein, executive VP, programming and production, Debmar-Mercury, said. “We didn’t anticipate problems and so far we haven’t had any.”

Vaccinated Crowd, Crew

Fans wanting to attend the show make their requests through the show’s website. They are asked to show proof of vaccination and identification upon their arrival. Most of the show’s staff and crew is vaccinated, as is Williams herself. The show  has provided on-site testing and remote testing capabilities through a third party since it returned to the studio. Throughout the past year, staff was being tested as often as three times a week. Finally, the show’s staff, crew and any audience members, while vaccinated, continue to wear masks as per union guidelines.

“I’m very proud of Wendy’s below-the-line staff, they did a tremendous job,” Burstein said. “We didn’t have to shut down one day.”

Fox also is the only group that is preparing to premiere not one, but two new shows this fall: Debmar-Mercury’s Nick Cannon and its own You Bet Your Life, starring Jay Leno. Fox was also the launch group for Wendy Williams, which airs on its stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. 

Debmar-Mercury intends to produce Nick Cannon in front of a full live audience, as long as union and public-health guidelines permit, at the show’s production studio at 106th Street and Park Avenue in Harlem. Meanwhile, You Bet Your Life will be produced in Los Angeles in front of a smaller audience of 60 people or so. All potential audience members are asked to show proof of vaccination. 

Nick Cannon, which was supposed to debut on TV stations across the country in fall 2020 but was delayed, will premiere in September. Three days of the show each week will be produced live while two will be produced on the day prior to airing, keeping it very current. The show will produce 170 original episodes, taking Nick Cannon all the way into next July with fresh content. 

“These hosts feed off of their audiences, especially someone comedic like Nick,” Burstein said. “In a way, it turned out to be a blessing that we didn’t have to launch and air a whole year during the pandemic.”

You Bet Your Life starts production at the end of July and intends to complete the year’s production by the end of October. 

Meanwhile, another Fox-produced game show, 25 Words or Less, will continue to be produced without an audience this year, Stephen Brown, executive VP, programming and development, Fox Television Stations, said. 

Jay Leno in You Bet Your LIfe

You Bet Your Life with Jay Leno will originate from Los Angeles before a smaller audience of about 60. (Image credit: Fox Television Stations)

Finally, Fox will premiere a test run of Pictionary, hosted by Jerry O’Connell and based on the popular drawing game, on July 12. That show is following COVID guidelines for crew and talent, although it does not have an audience. All 20 episodes of the four-week test were taped over a week in June. Pictionary is being distributed by CBS Media Ventures and airing on select Fox-owned stations. If it performs well in the test, CBS will plan to take it national next fall with potentially both Fox- and CBS-owned stations on board.

“What we’re finding is that game resonates really well with the audience. We anticipate that You Bet Your Life is going to do well and doubling down on game is a good strategy for us. It’s an appealing production model and it’s a good utility player for the stations,” Brown said. “Games are a half hour and stations can double-run them or put them into a block of games. They fit everywhere on a station’s schedule.”

In addition, the game shows that air on Fox-owned stations — from the syndication-leading Family Feud, starring Steve Harvey and produced by Fremantle, to 25 Words or Less and now You Bet Your Life and Pictionary — all have a comedic element, allowing them to replace increasingly scarce off-network sitcoms at much lower production costs and license fees.

“I can see us doing a game every year,” Brown said. “If you look at the way we do game, humor is the driver.”

As for the many talk shows that are typically produced in front of a live audience, their plans are not yet clear. On Thursday, July 1, the unions that oversee production were supposed to release revised pandemic production guidelines, but they are delaying that guidance until they can conclude talks. Talks are scheduled to resume on July 6 after the long Independence Day weekend.


Variants Throw a Curve

The evolution of COVID-19 variants, such as the prevalent delta variant that is surging in some parts of the U.S. and around the world, is making providing said guidance tricky. While the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization continue to assert that the approved vaccines provide strong protection against variants, there still have been breakthrough cases. Los Angeles County recently encouraged everyone — whether vaccinated or not — to return to wearing masks when indoors with groups of people, after having lifted that guidance just two weeks prior.

Currently, nearly 48% of the U.S. is vaccinated, and the U.S. is leading the world in virus mitigation. The delta variant accounts for nearly 50% of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the CDC. 

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.