America’s Got Talent is one of the first big-budget non-scripted formats to resume filming following the COVID-19 production shutdown.
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Creator Simon Cowell and exec producers Sam Donnelly and Jason Raff tell Deadline how they did it.
Before the shutdown, the show, which returned on May 26, shot the first six audition shows and the challenge for the team was how to resume production on its Judge Cuts episodes and its live episodes.
The show shot in the Simi Valley on a huge outdoor movie stage that was created to look like an drive-in movie theater. The judges, Cowell, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum and Modern Family star Sofia Vergara, turn up in separate cars and sit in socially distanced directors chairs to watch the performers.
To smooth the process, NBC has reduced the number of Judge Cuts episodes from four to one, airing on July 28, cutting down the number of acts from 72 to 60, and filling the schedule with a best-of auditions episode on July 21 and a 15th anniversary special on August 4.
Simon Cowell tells Deadline that there was a “real buzz of excitement” to be back on a lot together. “I could see the relief on the crews faces that they were back at work and then we turned around the corner to the set we’d built and it was honestly one of the most amazing experiences I can remember for a long time,” he added.
“It was something that encompasses the Southern California lifestyle and scenery that we all know and love, and in some ways are missing right now. Wait until you see the vehicles the judges arrive in. We simply had to have some fun with this,” added Sam Donnelly and Jason Raff. “While it was a huge endeavor to figure out how to move forward with taping our Judge Cuts at this time, the team really rose to the occasion. With the magnitude of AGT and the variety of our acts, we knew we had to come up with a really creative way to capture our performances.”
Cowell admitted that the Judge Cuts episodes were never his favorite part of the show – having previously moved from Pasadena, where there were 3,000 audience members to the Dolby Theater with 250 and this provided an opportunity to freshen up the format. “I always felt you were way up there on the audition shows and then it felt like you dropped in energy on the middle rounds – so I was always keen to change those middle shows, they never quite felt right to me. I personally now would stick to this new way we’ve done it not just for the present but for the future. I think it is a better show this year than it has been on previous years,” he added.
Given the team was filming a few days after the production shutdown had lifted, safety was integral, as was getting approval from the unions and the guilds.
In addition to regular testing and talent handling their own microphones, producers created a pod system with each pod assigned to a particular area of production, a specific zone. Everyone within the zone adhered to social distancing and when they interacted with someone working in another zone, they talked via phone or walkie talkie.
Everyone wore masks, including host Terry Crews and the judges, except when they were talking on camera.
“Safety was of course our number one priority as we were heading back into production. Utilizing the state and local guidelines, as well as those set forth by unions and guilds, we set out to create one of the safest environments for television production,” Donnelly and Raff said. “We’d have to say that the end result was a set that felt even safer than shopping in a grocery store, and it was evident that our overall AGT family was very thankful to be able to return to work.”
Cowell added that safety was the “number one priority”. “If we thought anyone was at risk, we wouldn’t film. So as long as you know that people are safe, fortunately everyone who was on the lot was tested, will be tested and are continually tested. Once you know you’ve got that part and it works then the second part is putting on the show. You learn very, very quickly to adapt and the show will feel different but hopefully people will still enjoy watching a new version of the show with the principals of the show still intact,” he said.
Next up for the producers is the live shows, which are set to start on August 11. The number of live shows is expected to grow with forty four acts performing over four weeks, compared to 36 acts appearing over three weeks last season.
The team is now working out where to shoot these live shows, including potentially at the Dolby Theater, and whether they will be able to incorporate any audience, in person or virtually.
The Got Talent format has been adapted in numerous international territories and Cowell said that he hopes global broadcasters, including ITV in the UK, will now adopt some of its learnings. “The first thing we did was get the cut sent to all of our territories around the world to show how we did it because I think a lot of other countries will go the same route and think this will apply to a lot of things we are going to do in the future how we work through this,” he said.
The mogul added that quarantine has provided him with a bit of time to think and he teased that he has used the lockdown to come up with three new formats. “I have had to use my brain more than any other time of my life both on the current shows we own and the new shows we are going to make,” he said. “I have had more time than I’ve ever had before so we have, for instance, three new formats which we didn’t have 12 months ago because I’ve had the time to work on them, develop them properly and the last time I did that or had the time to do it, honestly was around 2005 – which was about the time I came up with Got Talent. I’m very excited.”
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