Pandemic vs prime time – what’s happening to your favourite shows?

Three men and three women walking arm in arm down a city street.

COVID-19’s effects on the entertainment industry have been seismic. Sets were shut down, assembling casts and crew at a distance touched on the impossible, and streaming platforms reigned supreme. We explore the pandemic’s impact on must-see TV

By Peter Hoskin    Above image: the cast of Friends (Getty)    Thursday 13 August, 2020    Long read

Let’s talk about supply and demand, starting with the latter. Demand for television has rarely, if ever, been higher. Thanks to the pandemic, people have been spending more time at home and turned to their remote controls for solace. Netflix gained 26 million new subscribers in the first half of this year, which is almost as many as it gained throughout the whole of 2019. Even traditional television services have benefited: the BBC’s viewing figures were up by almost 50% in the early weeks of lockdown.

But when it comes to supply, to the production of new TV shows to keep our square eyes occupied, that’s where it gets, well… a bit more complicated. A combination of lockdowns, travel restrictions and social-distancing requirements has meant that various shows have either been stalled or stopped completely. Later this year, we could be all wired up with nothing to stream.

So that you know what’s happening, we thought we’d survey the televisual landscape – and summarise how some of the best, biggest and most popular shows have been affected by COVID-19.
A man and a woman embracing.

Friends (Getty)

Two men walking through a dark industrial tunnel in protective suits holding torches.

Chernobyl (Sky)

Friends

There’s a lot about Friends that doesn’t seem to fit our current times: a show about six beautiful, all-White twentysomethings who live in style and comfort in central New York City. And yet it has enjoyed a remarkable second life recently, despite no new episodes since 2004. Hundreds of thousands of people, old fans and new ones alike, watched the sitcom while it was on Netflix – where it was said to be the second most-streamed show.

This revived interest led to a more substantial revival: a new ‘reunion’ episode, for which the original cast members are set to earn $2.5m each. Except, just as the episode was due to be filmed in March, the pandemic struck. It was then pushed back to May. Now it’s been pushed back ‘indefinitely‘, not least because the plan is to film in front of a live studio audience.

However, Jennifer Aniston (Rachel on the show, of course) is here to reassure us: ‘This has given us more time to make it even more exciting and more fun than it would have been.’

Chernobyl

The past few months have been kind to Chernobyl, last year’s dramatic account of the 1986 nuclear disaster, in a very specific way. It’s picked up even more awards, including many of the top honours at the recent British Academy Television Awards. But there has been no movement on its creator’s previous insistence that there will not be a second season. ‘We told a story of a place in time and we did it pretty darn well,’ says Craig Mazin. ‘And it’s time to start thinking about other places and other times.’ 
A group of children standing outside.

Stranger Things (Netflix)

A woman wearing a red super hero costume.

WandaVision

Stranger Things

The release date of the fourth season of Stranger Things is more than just a matter of speculation – it could tell us something about the story. The second season was set around Halloween and was released on 27 October 2017, while the third season was set around Independence Day and was released on 4 July 2019. There had been some speculation that season four would, accordingly, be released around Christmas 2020 or New Year’s Day 2021, but those dates now seem unlikely. Production has been halted until, it’s thought, 17 September – which would surely push the actual release date well into next year. The question is, will they wait for Christmas 2021 or New Year’s Day 2022, perhaps?  

Marvel series

In the first few weeks of lockdown, Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, almost doubled its global subscriber numbers – to 50 million. The lure is simple: the platform has more mega-franchises than anywhere else, including all the classic Disney cartoons, Star Wars, The Simpsons and Marvel, and they keep on producing more and more shows and movies for each.

Except the masterplan has been interrupted, just ahead of one its most interesting gambits: the first new, big-budget, live-action Marvel shows on Disney+. Production on The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, starring Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, was abruptly halted in March. Same for Loki, starring Tom Hiddleston, and WandaVision, with Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen.

Perhaps more so than anything else on this list, these are more than just delayed TV shows. The jigsaw nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with each piece adding to the others and to the whole, means that there could well be knock-on effects from each postponement.
A man with a sword and grey hair standing in a misty wood.

The Witcher

In terms of viewing figures, The Witcher is certainly one of the beneficiaries of lockdown. Before it first aired in December – and despite it being based on a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski, which inspired a trio of popular video games – there was a feeling that the Netflix show could suffer in comparison to Game Of Thrones. But now, several months later, it’s thought that The Witcher has broken most of Netflix’s viewing records. It’s a massive hit.

This means, of course, that there will be more to come. A second season was confirmed almost at the same time as the launch of the first. A spin-off show and an animated show have also been announced in more recent months. The adventures of Geralt are far from over.

But, for now at least, they’re also far from our TV schedules. Season two of The Witcher began filming in March, but was promptly postponed as the pandemic swept into the UK and even infected its cast. It’s now expected that shoots will resume this month, although the script may have been rewritten in the meantime. The showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich recently told The Wrap: ‘It’s going to impact the story.’
A large family posing for a photograph in their lounge.

The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air

Two men presenting a tv show in a jungle.

I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!

The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air

Hang on. The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air? Wasn’t that from the early 1990s? It was, but now it’s coming back in a very different guise. Instead of a jaunty, Will Smith-starring comedy, the new Fresh Prince is a rebooted drama. The basic elements will be similar – a kid moved from trouble in Philadelphia to an upmarket neighbourhood in Los Angeles – but this time it’s serious.     

What’s really surprising, though, is how it came about. The film-maker Morgan Cooper put together a fake trailer last year, which then caught the attention of Will Smith himself, which then made it all a reality. Here’s to the return of the