How television shows have adjusted to filming during pandemic

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Actress Ellen Pompeo who plays leading role Meredith Grey dressed in full PPE while filming Grey’s Anatomy.

The entertainment industry has taken a big hit since the pandemic began in March 2020, many popular television shows had to pause filming or end their seasons early; when they were finally approved to start filming again, many series writers made the decision to incorporate COVID-19 into their plots.
“We’re going to address this pandemic for sure,” executive producer Krista Vernoff of Grey’s Anatomy said in a Quaranstreaming panel. “There’s no way to be a long-running medical show and not do the medical story of our lifetimes.”
The hit ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy felt obligated to cover the pandemic because the series is about the daily lives of doctors. The crew interviews real life doctors and healthcare workers during every season to get accurate information about medical conditions as well as ideas about their experiences that can be incorporated into the show. When interviewing for season 17, a major theme among all of the medical professionals interviewed was their work lives when the pandemic initially hit.
“This pandemic is the single-biggest medical story of our time and likely a permanent game-changer as to how we practice medicine and how we look at the world,” Dr. Zoanne Clack, a writer and producer for the show, said to The Hollywood Reporter. “Being a medical show that focuses on our doctors’ professional and private lives and one that takes great pride in being a voice for the voiceless and understanding that responsibility, we felt compelled to tell the stories of loneliness, fear and bravery that our health care workers and the patients are going through.”
Adding the pandemic into the plot makes filming a lot easier for the crew as it gives them an excuse to wear masks and social distance on set. Along with those safety precautions, the producers made the decision to shorten work days to 12 hours compared to their former 14-16 hour days; as well as rapid Covid tests multiple times throughout the week.
“Everyone on set is required to take a Covid test three times a week to make sure that if anyone gets the virus, we can catch it fast, hopefully before it spreads to many people,” actress Kelly McCreary who plays supporting character Maggie Pierce in Grey’s Anatomy said in an interview with Good Morning America.
Grey’s Anatomy is not the only television show that has found a way to work the pandemic into their plot; NBC’s Law and Order SVU has dedicated an entire episode in their 22nd season to COVID-19.
“We’re going to reflect New York in the pandemic. What happens to someone who is sexually assaulted during the height of the coronavirus outbreak?” producer and writer Warren Leight said during The Hollywood Reporter podcast.
Many of the characters in this episode and other episodes in the season are Broadway actors who were left unemployed due to the pandemic.
“We know how hard the community has been hit here. The goal is to get as many jobs to as many theater actors as we possibly can,” Leight said in an interview with Deadline.
The National Endowment for the Arts recently released data that showed the overall unemployment rate has averaged at 8.5%. However, for actors, the rate was 52%. The show is filmed in New York which is why the producers thought to hire Broadway actors. Additionally, like Grey’s Anatomy, many safety precautions have been put in place by their crew to assure safety while filming.
“Everyone on set tests [for COVID-19] at least once or twice a week,” Leight said. “The actors are only unmasked in the moments when we’re shooting and the minute we yell cut they mask up, but that does mean they’re unmasked so we went to a system where no one is allowed on set when they’re shooting unless they have a mask, a shield and full PPE.”
Additionally, the actors are tested five times a week, unlike the crew members, because they are the only people who are allowed to take their masks off while filming. Guest actors are also tested before they’re allowed on set. The Law and Order SVU crew also decided to do their pre-season table reads through Zoom to limit contact.
Although COVID-19 has made filming television shows more difficult and time consuming, working the pandemic into their plots makes social distancing and wearing masks on set much easier and more understandable to their audiences. When people are looking back on these episodes in years to come, they will reminisce about the pandemic in 2020.