The Return of Live Entertainment – Concerts, Awards Shows, On-Set Production – as We Emerge From COVID-19

David Sapin, digital chief revenue & risk officer, PwC
David Sapin, digital chief revenue & risk officer, PwC

Today’s entertainment industry is finding out quickly that the show must go on -- but not without safeguards. Everything from mask-wearing to limited event attendance and proof of negative COVID-19 tests, further exacerbated the pandemic’s impact on the industry. In-person events aside, COVID-19 has also been a driver of the slowdown, and in some cases, shutdown of overall production. Closing down shop to mitigate potential outbreaks on set have led to record lows in total scripted original TV series, and a shift in entertainment companies’ earnings.

We can see this new entertainment reality today; rock concerts with band and audience members enclosed in plastic bubbles. The Kentucky Derby, one-third full. A mask-free, face-to-face awards show… anxious congratulation hugs included. (source: BBC, 4/2021). 

They’re all signs of the slow return of mega-events. As COVID-19 anxiety begins to dissipate, though, there’s still hesitance to go big. After all, it’s still the case that only about one-fourth of the adult US population is fully vaccinated and virus variants continue to spread. The fanfare of events may look a bit different, but that’s just the reality of in-person gatherings this year. 

As TV production ensues and summer festivals and awards shows begin to take shape in a COVID-19-weary world, a variety of methods are being used as both safeguards and as psychological tools to reassure nervous would-be attendees: from mask-wearing to handwashing stations, to limited attendance and social distancing, to proof of negative COVID-19 tests or vaccination before entry. 

People want to be assured that anyone attending an event has been vaccinated or isn’t sick. Most events are trying to ensure that, but not everyone will get vaccinated and pre-event questionnaires aren’t fool-proof. What happens if someone who attends an event with you has COVID-19 and finds out after the fact? Bridging the gap between the safety efforts already in place and a safer reality when incidents occur requires a simpler, automated way to more precisely identify anyone who might have been exposed to illness. That way, venue managers and event organizers can quickly communicate to only those impacted, and provide a risk level that gives details without compromising privacy. 

Production sites have started giving people the confidence and peace of mind to safely return in-person with social distancing and other safety measures like on-site only contact tracing apps or devices. But as the world opens up, we want to be just as comfortable returning to the things we did and loved in the before times (remember those?). 

There is a way to get back to some sense of business as usual, when events operate with a safety-first approach and attendees enjoy the things they used to in large spaces surrounded by  people, including strangers. Here’s three ways production sites and other media-driven organizations are doing so:

1. Making tracing automatic, not haphazard

Contact tracing devices (more on why these work better than apps for events, below) can be carried on lanyard to help create a safer environment for event attendees – be it an indoor graduation, an outdoor baseball game or a daylong convention.

Contact tracing has been used to track and trace diseases throughout history and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) says it’s a good mechanism to help prevent spread of disease (source: CDC, “COVID-19 Contact Tracing for Health Departments,” 2020). But, it’s also been pretty inefficient, relying on the memories of anxious people who are sick, or exposed, to recall who else might have been exposed.

Add to this that events are inherently transient. A graduation might be a day of events with people from all corners mingling and then heading to their far flung homes. A conference may have a large venue, an exhibit hall and breakout rooms. You attend with people whose schedules and movements are as varied as yours. And that baseball game? You funnel through the gates with one group of people, sit near another group and wait for your ballpark hotdog with another group. Rather than trying to restructure an event format to minimize interaction, automatic contact tracing can identify those brief interactions and aggregate them to an overall risk score, giving individuals the confidence to go about their usual traffic patterns.

Automatic contact tracing can make the traditional contact tracing process “faster and more efficient,” (source: CDC, “COVID-19 Contact Tracing for Health Departments,” 2020). Many companies are already including digital contact tracing in their long term business continuity and disaster recovery plans, anticipating an unexpected development in the COVID-19 pandemic or another future health crisis. 

Extending this idea to production grounds, venues, events, sports stadiums and more could be a natural next step to expanding access to the things people love – and breathing new life into the badly battered conference, event and performance world. It can also provide comfort to the workers and employees within the media and entertainment industry to return work safely, revitalizing the sector once again. 

2. Helping to create safer event spaces, easily

For some situations, a contact tracing app downloaded to a smartphone and gated to just the workplace is the answer. But what if you run a factory where smartphones aren’t allowed on the floor, or have delivery drivers who need to transit a broad radius? What if you’re coordinating a college graduation for 3,000 graduates and their families, or managing a theater or concert venue with different attendees every night? Enter: automatic contact tracing. 

It works by assigning a small, physical fob (like a contact tracing device), to each attendee. Attendees wear the fob throughout the event and turn it in on their way out. Each fob uses Bluetooth LE technology to recognize the distance, duration, and frequency of exposure to other fobs, with data stored securely and privately. Attendees and on-site workers go on about their day, rooting for their favorite team or watching their granddaughter get her diploma, reassured that organizers have a plan for their safety.

A few days later, if someone at the event reports they’ve come down with COVID-19, the automatic contact tracing device data is compared to assess which fobs were in close proximity to other fobs and therefore which event attendees should be notified of a potential exposure. Only the people potentially exposed would be identified, and the designated event administrators would know who to contact to warn about their potential exposure. The event manager can then communicate risk levels to attendees based on their proximity, while maintaining anonymity for event-goers.

3. Providing peace of mind, beyond perception

Today and in the future people will be looking to find spaces where they can feel safe, knowing that those who are alongside us in-person have accepted the same “social contract” to be in this public space. We’ve already seen this play out in our lives – from the formation of ‘pandemic pods’ of people who agree to the same safety measures we do, to mask requirements inside shops, to social distancing markers and arrows in grocery stores and bank teller lines. When we see others adhering, we breathe easier.

But generally, these are situations that are necessities of everyday life. Festivals, shows, heading to the theater and other social events may not be necessary, but after months of quarantine, they sure feel like they are. These events bring a different kind of social anxiety amid a pandemic, with the question of “should I be going?” We don’t have the same perceived contract with strangers so far into our outer circles, which means it’s up to event managers and administrators to help provide that peace of mind to fill seats. When we can visually see others wearing contact tracing devices, it reminds us that we can relax because the social contract is being upheld.

For some would-be, could-be attendees (like me) who weigh privacy, peace of mind, and health alongside enjoyment, knowing that automatic contact tracing is present at an event could be the deciding factor for attending. It also is a critical part in providing comfort to those who work in the entertainment industry, providing peace of mind as they return to venues, on-site sets or the stage. For those who are less risk-averse, but socially-conscious of others’ wellbeing (like my kids), a contact tracing device – distributed prior to entering an event – is a simple solution versus app-based alternatives when built with privacy at its core. Contact tracing is a proven, effective way to help mitigate risk, and automatic contact tracing makes that mitigation more precise, simpler and more efficient while helping to give people peace of mind.

Giving people one less thing to worry about with a simple technology could be a game changer for getting to some semblance of normal – for event venues, production sites and for people itching to be in them.

David Sapin brings over 30 years of experience to his role as the Digital Leader for PwC US. Sapin and PwC Digital help PwC's clients solve their most pressing business problems by leveraging IoT and other digital solutions.