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Inside talk TV’s weird and difficult year

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One day in March, Kelly Clarkson headed out to Montana for what was supposed to be a quick trip to her not-quite-finished vacation home. Within a week, with the coronavirus pandemic worsening, nonessential travel throughout much of the U.S. was shut down. Suddenly, Clarkson found herself adrift in an unusual spot for the host of a daily, syndicated talk show: deep in elk country with no internet, far away from a studio audience.

Soon Clarkson was grappling with an unsettling question, one that hung over everyone in her chatty, glad-handing line of show business. What now?

On March 13, executives at “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” which is produced and distributed by NBC Universal Television, announced that they would be cutting down their production schedule from five new episodes per week to one. Many of the show’s 300 workers would be furloughed indefinitely. Moving forward, there would be no live studio audience and no face-to-face interviews. Everything would be done remotely. Before the start of the pandemic, the show was being hailed as one of the rare, new breakout hits in daytime television. Now, Clarkson and a skeleton crew would have to reinvent it on the fly.

Rather than returning to her home in Los Angeles, Clarkson decided to stay put in Montana. In the weeks that followed, while she waited for her cabin to get wired for high-speed internet, Clarkson and her colleagues improvised as best they could. Her husband used his iPhone to shoot clips of Clarkson puttering around the cabin, singing. Afterward, he would send it to the show’s producers using their Verizon mobile service.

Clarkson made do without her usual team of hair and makeup stylists. For a while, she lacked a hair dryer, a useful tool in a state that was still cold enough to threaten the wet-headed with pneumonia. Occasionally, things got dire. The cabin’s pipes froze. She was forced to reschedule an appearance by LL Cool J.

“It was like having a picnic in quicksand,” said Alex Duda, the executive producer of “The Kelly Clarkson Show.” “Like, you lay it all out, and it looks so great, and it sinks back down. So we just kept coming up with new plans.”

Duda tried to swap tips with other producers across the talk-TV landscape, but each show seemed to be fumbling through its own, uniquely upside-down world. Jimmy Fallon, the host of “The Tonight Show,” was getting interrupted frequently by his two young daughters, as he used Skype to interview guests from his home. “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert aired a clip of himself cursing after a camera fell off its stand while he was filming his first show from his house.

“Things are not going great,” John Oliver of “Last Week Tonight” joked to Colbert. “I’ve learned, unfortunately, how to make a TV show on my own here, with my staff over Zoom, so I’ve basically been committing union infractions out the wazoo.”

While the coronavirus pandemic has bought much of America’s television production to a halt, including scripted series and live sports, talk shows have been able to limp along, dutifully coping with the unusual constraints. Along the way, the chaos has spurred much creativity, as show-runners have hustled to come up with alternative ways of staging interviews and connecting with anxious viewers. Even so, the current situation, while technically feasible, feels far from sustainable.

Tim Brooks, a TV historian, said that while talk shows have been able to cobble together new episodes from a safe social distance, the necessary compromises are antithetical to the format. Daytime talk shows, in particular, are an intimate medium. The chemistry between a host and a guest is predicated on up-close, personal interaction. The spark of emotion is heightened by a live crowd of observers looking on from inside the studio. “The audience is really part of the show in many ways,” said Brooks.

While some viewers may enjoy watching their favorite hosts battle their new environments, eventually the novelty is likely to wear off. Without the usual slate of new movies, sports, and music tours that typically provides talk shows with a steady stream of newsworthy guests, viewers have less reason to tune in. These days, if you take a glance at the YouTube channel of a major talk show, chances are, the most popular segments will all date back to a time before the onset of the pandemic.

The ongoing predicament is contributing to the broader challenge facing the traditional TV industry. In the first quarter, Comcast Corp. lost 409,000 pay-TV subscribers, the most ever, as the lack of content and a recession hastened a trend away from linear television toward streaming. AT&T Inc. lost 897,000 subscribers. Geetha Ranganathan, a media analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, described the situation as “a bloodbath.” The main culprit is the lack of live sports. But trimmed-back talk shows are also a threat, with late-night programming declining 6% the week of April 13 compared with a year earlier, according to a report from consultants Magna Global.

There’s only so much producers can do to reverse that trend. For now, it’s a waiting game. According to Duda, this summer, Clarkson will return to a private studio in Los Angeles where she will shoot new episodes during a time of the year when the show would normally be on hiatus. At some point, they’ll start bringing back more crew members in waves, though nobody knows exactly when that will be.

Jason Halbert, Clarkson’s musical director, said that one silver lining is that some changes to the show may stick around. In the past, he said, he would typically start and stop musical recordings constantly to ensure each component was perfect. Under the current circumstances, he’s discovered the value in focusing on the big picture first before drilling down into the details. “It’s almost old-school again, like the Motown days,” he said.

For a new episode of “The Kelly Clarkson Show” in mid-May, Clarkson interviewed NBC News anchor Lester Holt. During the segment, Holt played some bass guitar and introduced Clarkson to his Australian Labradoodle Lucy. “This is my home in Lower Manhattan,” Holt said at one point, gesturing to his surroundings. “Fortunately, we’d done some work, and we got in just in time when all this hit. You just can’t complain in times like this because a lot of folks can’t, like us, work from home.”

“Amen,” said Clarkson. “What’s funny about your statement is, we have been living in temporary housing. And let me tell you, it is not fun.”

 

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