Arts & Entertainment Editor
If there is one thing we are all familiar with in the last month of 2020, it’s uncertainty. Thinking back to what we recognized as the beginning of the pandemic in March, our standards and community expectations for health were vastly different than today, and our entertainment reflected that. It took a while for the visuals on our televisions to reflect our day-to-day reality in terms of distancing, masks, and other precautions in both fictional and reality productions. As competition shows returned to filming this fall, they still seemed stuck in the uncertainty of COVID-19 health precautions (since many reality tv crews are nonunion, they are not held to the same standard of production safety), each carving out their own set of standards to ensure the safety of hosts, judges, and contestants. With this, reality shows are granted the privilege of not having to mirror the health regulations audiences see so prevalently in their own lives. This flexibility creates a visual clash between the need to enact safety procedures and the desire to make the show appear as normal as possible.
During the filming of its last season in Spring 2020, singing competition The Voice switched to a distanced approach. Contestants returned home and would perform from there, but this quick switch to digital created a disadvantage, contestants’ unfamiliarity with digital performing taking center stage. So, it was no surprise that the show decided to return in person for their most recent season, which began on Oct. 13. Things looked a little different but maintained a sense of normalcy that makes their protocols appear surface-level at best. Judges are required to keep their distance from the stage and contestants. There is no more in-person audience; instead, the videos of audience members are displayed on screens behind the coaches. Contestants, unless they are minors, are unaccompanied by family or friends and appear to keep their distance from each other if they are present. Normally, during the battle rounds of the show, contestants compete against each other without barriers. Now, a plexiglass window is placed between them and also separates them from their coach and guest coaches.
However, this plexiglass didn’t extend to the ceiling, nor did the window separating the contestants connect to the perpendicular window separating them from the coach. According to US Magazine, The Voice’s protocol includes regular temperature checks, frequently disinfecting the set, and social distancing, but, given asymptomatic cases and the methods of spread, how effective is this? While contestants do keep approximately six feet of distance between each other and coaches, the coaches do not abide by this same rule. It is unclear if they are abiding by a bubble environment or COVID-19 testing. These precautions appear ineffective when the distance between people is blurred, and singing could cause droplets to travel further than the traditionally followed six-foot distance.
Competition shows have the potential to normalize COVID-19 protocols and show how the virus interacts with everyday life. Already, on The Voice, two contestants had parents who were hospitalized due to COVID-19, and one of those contestants was sent home (even though he was about to be voted off) due to violating safety protocols — though it’s unclear what exactly his actions were and he denies violating protocols. While these moments give clarity to how our communities are impacted (and, apparently, how difficult it can be to follow precautions even when affected), most competition shows prefer to put up a facade of normalcy. Shows have to balance the sense of escapism they previously offered with the chance of appearing like an echo of privilege that comes with the ability to visually disregard safety measures. Masked Singer was accused of having a live, unmasked audience when they were using previously recorded clips. Dancing With the Stars has forgone a live audience and turned to sound effects such as cheering, clapping, and even booing.
Food Network shows have taken The Bachelorette approach and created a COVID-19 bubble. As the reality romance television show does, contestants, crew, judges, and hosts are tested and, when positive, “quarantine” together at a resort, which is how the network provided viewers with the comfort of the many holiday baking shows. The channel’s other staples, such as Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay, are filmed in advance, leaving the network with enough shows to air through the beginning of 2021, but they are exploring ways to adapt the shows to allow them to continue filming.
As competition shows struggle to find precautions that ensure safety for their cast and crew while also fitting their design, they still provide an important platform for many competitors. Aside from shows that star celebrities, cooking/baking and singing competitions (however formulaic) have filled COVID-19’s creative void. The food and independent entertainment industries are uniquely hit, with restaurants having to keep up with shifting regulations and many entertainers left in the dark as to what their future contains. Competition shows step forward and create an outlet for those that COVID-19 has left behind, to a certain degree.
Uncertainty is certain in the precautions and filming of competition shows, and it has become clear that there is no one set of protocols that can encompass all entertainment. The question that is still plaguing the industry is: do we acknowledge the ongoing pandemic? Many shows have gone forward in creating as normal of an environment as possible, but maybe, this is the wrong move. Perhaps audiences need to see that our routines can continue, to a certain extent, if we just slow down and take the correct precautions, such as mask-wearing and social distancing. Competition shows can provide drama and comfort while still presenting the reality of our current world, but, then again, what is reality television if not unrealistic.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of NBC The Voice