As production quickly shut down across Los Angeles in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the Fox Television Stations turned to their syndication partners to help keep them in the day-and-date programming that they prefer.
And those partners stepped up, with Warner Bros.’ Extra staying on the air with a skeleton crew coming into the office, which also serves as its studio, and Harvey Levin and Warner Bros.’ TMZ switching to at-home production on a dime. And talent such as Dr. Mehmet Oz and Sony Pictures Television’s Dr. Oz has remained both on the air and on other channels as everyone has scrambled to keep the cameras -- and laptops and phones -- rolling.
“This is broadcast’s time in a lot of ways,” said Frank Cicha, executive VP, programming, Fox Television Stations. “There are lots of stations doing local church services and local telethons to raise money. And a lot of the community stuff that stations do has been taken to a new level in the midst of all of this.”
Extra, which relaunched in September with new host Billy Bush and a new format, has remained live on the air without a break, originating from its studio, although it also is conducting some interviews from Bush’s and other correspondents’ homes.
While it’s important to stay on the air, it’s also important to stay safe, so Extra is employing a skeleton crew and practicing social distancing on set, said executive producer Jeremy Spiegel.
“We were kind of made for this moment, we all come from news,” said executive producer Theresa Coffino. “We pivoted right away, changing the systems and refashioning the way we do business. It’s what we’ve always done.”
One of the strongest advocates for staying on was Bush himself, who serves as the show’s main anchor and managing editor.
“I understood that we had a serious crisis on our hands and that we needed to take the safety of our employees into consideration, but I also knew there was a way to do this in a smart and responsible way,” Bush said. “Our show is now less decorative and more of a news operation. I’m a curious person and a journalist. I’m interested in good stories and telling them correctly.”
In the past several weeks, Extra has aired segments with Christine Cuomo, wife of CNN’s Chris Cuomo, who was diagnosed with coronavirus, and with Shark Tank’s Lori Greiner, who recently sent food to 11 New York City hospitals.
Extra also checks in with several doctors each day, including Dr. Armand Dorian, chief medical officer of USC’s Verdugo Hills medical center, as well as Oz, Dr. Phil McGraw, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta and other health and wellness experts such as Deepak Chopra. At the end of each episode, Bush signs off with a story of hope, such as the 104-year-old woman who has survived both coronavirus and the Spanish Flu in 1918.
“Between that and the doctors, I think that’s what really sets us apart,” said Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, Extra’s senior executive producer.
The Fox TV stations liked what Bush and Extra were doing, so Fox TV Stations chief Jack Abernethy asked Bush if he could contribute to KTTV Los Angeles’ half-hour news show that airs at 7 p.m. each weeknight and specifically focus on coronavirus.
Bush now is appearing every weeknight at 7:15 p.m. live from his home. That newscast leads directly into Extra in Los Angeles. As a result of all of this topical coverage, Extra has been hitting season highs in the past couple of weeks, most recently rising to a 1.2 live plus same day household ratings average, according to Nielsen Media Research, up 20% to tie for third among the magazines, in the week ended March 29.
“We have been working closely with all of our syndication partners to find opportunities to involve them in our coverage as we cover the coronavirus crisis, which obviously has a medical focus but it’s also impacting lots of different industries,” said Erica Hill-Rodriguez, VP and news director of Fox-owned KTTV/KCOP Los Angeles.
KTTV has upended its entire schedule to cover the pandemic in Los Angeles. From 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., the station airs Good Day LA, and TMZ’s Levin has joined that morning newscast several times over the past few weeks. The station’s noon newscast is now dedicated to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s daily press conference, and at 1 p.m., it airs Los Angeles County’s daily health briefing. At 5 p.m., it carries Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s daily press briefing, heading back into its own news at 6 p.m. At 7 p.m., it airs the Coronavirus Crisis Special Report, which “focuses on separating fact from fear,” said Hill-Rodriguez.
“I think in a lot of ways this crisis will forever change the way that we produce content and with that, the partnerships and collaborations will also change,” she said.
“In some ways, you could look at it as survival,” said Cicha. “Extra is a day-and-date program and they take their responsibility to be there seriously. It’s not easy, either for the local stations or for the syndicated productions. But I am thankful and glad that the results are there.”
Meanwhile, TMZ also managed to turn on a dime, clearing out its entire Playa Vista production facility and sending its staff to work from home.
“TMZ was one of the first shows to figure out how to do those Zooms and make them look good,” said Cicha. “And TMZ Live looks almost exactly the same as it always has and that’s terrific.”
“We sent people home before the governor locked the state down just because we didn’t think it was safe,” said Levin. “We had only essential people, who are mostly technical staff, in the office and we didn’t miss a day. We were in full production moving from the studio one day to everybody at home the next. That is a huge credit to our technical staff. We have 300 people who are all working from home.”
In addition, Levin and his team mounted a primetime special for Fox on Netflix’s show-of-the-moment, Tiger King, that they had less than a week to produce and that aired Monday night. So while TMZ was figuring out how to stay on the air, it also was producing an entire new piece of content while everyone worked remotely. And it launched a twice daily, live short-form show on new streaming service Quibi, which debuted on April 6.
“I think what we are all going through is going to be transformative in entertainment in so many ways,” said Levin. “All of the bells and whistles that people use in television, I think everyone is learning new ways of production where it still looks good but it’s not the kind of production we used before. I feel like I’m going to pay much more attention to post-production than I did in the past.”
Like Bush and Levin, Oz has maintained his live on-air presence throughout the pandemic, not just shooting segments for his show from his home but also frequently appearing on cable news, network news and local TV stations.
“Dr. Oz has been everywhere and the dayparts are all up,” said Cicha. “He’s another guy who is contributing original content and doing it both nationally on his show and locally with the stations. He’s providing stations with original content. They set up a [production studio] in his basement and we’re very happy about that.”
Dr. Oz hit 8.1 million viewers in the week ended March 22, and it’s averaging a 1.2 national household rating, up 30% compared to the prior week and up 34% compared to the prior year.
While these efforts are paying off for the shows in the form of higher ratings, it’s also paying off for the TV stations.
“Our syndication partners all have reached out and asked what we needed. We didn’t have to go out and ask for help; they came to us,” said Cicha. “These are our partners and they have stepped up.”
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