Australian reality TV undergoes overhaul
With his trademark high energy and court jester spirit, The Amazing Race host Beau Ryan returned to filming the reality adventure series on location in Queensland this week.
While the series set off last year around the world, this season - in the time of coronavirus - the popular 10 tentpole has been forced to think on its feet and find a new route around Australia.
As Network 10 executive producer Cathie Scott told Saturday EXTRA, when the world went into shutdown back in March, "embarking on a travel reality format such as The Amazing Race Australia … presented us with immense challenges but also an incredible opportunity to re-imagine this much-loved format."
After a successful return to air last year, "the onset of COVID and the travel restrictions that ensued meant that we had to reassess all of series 2 international route planning and quickly adapt to shooting totally within Australia," Ms Scott said.
"A cleverly designed travel route across the country, with the highest level of COVID safety protocols in place, will highlight never before regions and cultures right on our front door."
With production staff, as well as contestants and crew all forced into a two-week hotel quarantine, the new season set off this week, bracing for anything.
Beyond the basic social distancing protocols, TV productions like the Race have had to pivot their plans to ensure the safety of all cast and crew, while still maintaining the entertainment standards viewers have come to expect from the highly-engaging reality genre.
After an initial shutdown of all studio filming and outside broadcasts in March, slowly but surely the TV networks and production companies they hire to deliver their reality slate have come back to life.
It's just that real life looks a little different now.
Details of those changes are emerging as each of the free-to-air networks unveil their 2021 programming plans.
Nine was first out of the gate with its upfronts last month, confirming the return of reality favourites Married At First Sight, The Block and Ninja Warrior.
Learning from 10's experience putting this year's season of The Bachelor to air, Nine is expected to create a production 'bubble' for Married At First Sight, requiring regular COVID testing and temperature checks of cast and crew; while still allowing couples to get intimate.
The shows it let go, however, were even more telling, with Nine relinquishing rights to The Voice to Channel 7, citing its softening ratings, high cost and reliance on live studio audiences and live viewer voting as too much of a "risk" to its schedule.
Seven, which had an initial scare on the set of its reboot of Big Brother earlier this year, is forging ahead with its reality slate of BB, Farmer Wants A Wife, Ultimate Tag and Holey Moley which all return to production this month.
Its latest reality offering (airing this Monday), SAS Australia (where 'celebrities' pit themselves against a brutal bootcamp by former SAS officers) filmed in August, amid lockdown conditions, "adhering to guidelines and protocols" a Seven spokeswoman said.
It hasn't all gone to plan, as Beverley McGarvey, 10's chief content officer and executive vice president of Viacom/CBS Australia and New Zealand, can attest.
Ironically, it was an outbreak on The Masked Singer - when seven dancers tested positive - that threatened the series and momentarily shut down filming; before producers were able to wrangle back control and put the final episodes to air.
"When it happened, we were quite well set up to manage it, but you have to have a plan. You have to have left yourself enough time to have a plan B to get the episodes to air," she said.
"When you find yourself in that position, you have to keep people's wellbeing first. And if you put people's wellbeing first, everything else comes together."
Impressively, 10's schedule - heavy with reality content - showed the greatest resilience, "with MasterChef managing to shoot the entire first lockdown period because they were so buttoned up (in a bubble)," Ms McGarvey explained.
The success of the refreshed cooking contest - with all-new judges Andy Allen, Melissa Leong and Jock Zonfrillo - reflected the audience's appetite for feel good content, at a time of real uncertainty.
"I think (reality) is really engaging because it's not really like the lives that we're living at home. It's either aspirational or inspirational or funny."
It's worth noting MasterChef launched to spectacular ratings 11 or so years ago, as the world was coming out of the global financial crisis - and produced similar records this year as Australia faced off against a global pandemic.
In the US, the bumbling response to the virus also saw the TV industry stumble its way through its obsession with producing reality content.
'Remote' recordings became the buzzword, and audiences got used to seeing hosts and contestants 'call in' from their basements or living rooms (carefully edited bookcases a must).
Like the new "intimacy" officers forced on drama productions in the wake of the #metoo movement, COVID safety officers now appear across all scripted and non-scripted sets.
Costs, as a consequence, have spiked, with most reality productions having to budget for extended hotel quarantine stays for their talent; or like Brit billionaire Lord Alan Sugar's arrival ahead of filming for Nine's new series of The Celebrity Apprentice Australia, first-class tickets on the very limited flights from London to Sydney.
Its other reality title, Love Island, previously depended on a purpose built villa in Spain for production, but will now have to wear the cost to move the series, hosted by Sophie Monk, back to Australia.
It could make that money back if international networks look to "parachute" their productions here, given Australia's seemingly strong hold on the virus when compared to other territories.
Discovery Channel has already begun work here on some of its popular Shark Week content for next year - with Chris Hemsworth partnering with Valerie Taylor last month and diving with a film crew just south of his Byron Bay home.
For the new season of Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, the National Geographic Network sent the chef and a small crew to Iceland, Croatia, Portugal, and Finland; with the chef said to be "super excited" to get out of the UK's onerous lockdown and back out to work in the world again.
Originally published as Australian reality TV undergoes overhaul