How will reality TV proceed in the time of Covid-19? Will the contestants wear masks and maintain social distancing? Will performances feel flat without audiences to applaud afterwards? Even as Coronavirus cases rise, several reality shows have resumed shooting, ensuring that the cast and crew take precautionary measures. As per state government guidelines, they're also working with just 33% of their regular staff strength.
"The crew will have to wear masks and gloves. They'll be spread out over 6 to 7 zones, like the backstage, frontstage, production control room, outside, to help maintain a distance. The artistes will put on protective gear the moment we say, 'cut'. Earlier, there used to be touch-ups every 10 minutes, 15 minutes. That will stop," says Ranjeet Thakur, Frames Production, which handles Dance Plus on Star Plus and Super Dancer and India's Best Dancer on Sony, and plans to start shooting from Monday.
Producers and content heads talk about the other ways in which reality TV has adapted to the pandemic:
The traditional format of auditions, in which people travel in from different states and perform before a panel of judges, isn't a viable option anymore. MTV Roadies Revolution switched to virtual auditions in the middle of its 18th season this May.
Kaun Banega Crorepati followed, asking participants to sign in to the SonyLIV app at specially allotted times for one-on-one interviews and an online GK test. In a statement, the platform said that it received more than 3.1 crore entries for KBC season 12, a 42 percent jump from last year. Bigg Boss held its auditions for season 14 over the Voot app, where users submitted videos shorter than three minutes introducing themselves.
Even shows that are waiting to resume in-person auditions are being cautious. "Earlier, we would audition people from all over the country, then shortlist 100 and get them to Mumbai to appear on TV. Now we'll select fewer people," says Vibhor Kamini Ratna, the content head of Frames Production, which produces Dance Plus, India's Best Dancer and Super Dancer.
With an audience also comes the responsibility of making sure that they're social distancing. It's a hassle that producers just don't want. "Ensuring that they're seated apart or standing away from each other in queues will unnecessarily create pressure on us," says Thakur. This means 200 fewer people on set, and shows in which the usual audience sounds of cheers or clapping have been replaced by stock sounds.
As for emotional scenes of contestants hugging, shaking hands with or falling at the feet of the judges? Social distancing will put an end to that too, he says.
Big reality shows usually require a 14-15 camera setup, something production houses will look to avoid in favour of having fewer crew members on set. "That figure will have to be halved," says Ratna. His team is working on creating more "high-concept, low-production" shows that feature just two people going head-to-head in quizzes or cooking competitions. Such shows are shot with four cameras, he adds.
Also on the cards — more Bigg Boss-style, one-location shows. "We will screen the Bigg Boss participants properly, but they'll actually be the safest as the whole house will be sanitized regularly and they won't be in contact with anyone outside it," says Abhishek Rege, CEO, Endemol Shine India.
Several platforms are turning the constraints of the lockdown into an advantage, outsourcing the production of content to participants at home. In April, Flipkart launched Entertainer No. 1, an eight-week-long "stay-at-home reality show" hosted by Varun Dhawan. Contestants chose from a library of songs to dance to or dialogues to lip sync to and then uploaded their videos to the app. The prize? Rs 1 crore.
Similarly, DisneyPlus Hotstar's Home Dancer, described as "the first of its kind online dance competition", premiered in May. Over the next five weeks, participants submitted 60 to 90-second-long videos of them dancing to pre-selected tracks in their living rooms, kitchens and terraces for the chance to win Rs 4 lakhs.
While representatives for both remain tight-lipped about the response these shows have gotten, industry experts say they expect similar "Tik Tok-style" formats to catch on.