How the Pandemic Stalled Peak TV

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One reason for the drop is obvious: With productions shut down, new seasons could not be completed in time. But there was another reason, executives and agents said. When filming resumed, extensive safety protocols for actors and crews added roughly 30 percent to most production budgets, said Chris Silbermann, the chief executive of ICM Partners, a major Hollywood talent agency.

“Everyone saw these costs pulling through the system and realized, ‘Oh, no, we’re going to have to do less,’” Mr. Silbermann said. “Stuff that was on the bubble, a lot of that stuff just went away.”

The slowdown also meant a change in Hollywood negotiations.

“I am now having tough production budget conversations with the streamers that I used to have with NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox,” Mr. Silbermann said. “These are like old-school budget conversations.”

Several outlets fed the maw in another way, by turning to international programming. Netflix’s “Lupin,” a French thriller series, and “Call My Agent!” a French workplace dramedy, have connected with American audiences. Their success was part of a larger lockdown trend: The viewing of non-English-language titles by U.S. Netflix subscribers shot up more than 50 percent in 2020, a Netflix spokesman said.

“Every show in another language is immediately better for us, because you can’t be on your phone,” Ms. Paskin, the Slate critic, said. “It just makes you pay attention.”

To fill the void left by the lack of scripted fare, nearly all outlets have also turned to reality programs, documentary series and even game shows, all of which are cheaper to make. Broadcast networks have given prime-time hours to shows like “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune” and “The Price Is Right at Night.” The number of unscripted shows making their debuts in 2020 increased 19 percent over the previous year, Ampere said.

“Everywhere you look, there’s a game show,” said Mr. Roush, the TV Guide critic. He added that his readers had pestered him about the lack of new episodes of network standbys like “NCIS” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

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