How TV beat the lockdown blues
21 August 2020
As we head into spring, we look back on what TV production teams did to beat the pandemic, keep us entertainment, and come up with new ways of making us smile
21 August 2020
As we head into spring, we look back on what TV production teams did to beat the pandemic, keep us entertainment, and come up with new ways of making us smile
Lockdown has eased to level 2 in South Africa and for many of us, that has meant the possibility of tearful and joyful reunions with family. The masks are still on, the hands are still scrubbed, but we can travel across the country at last. Meanwhile on our screens, all the shows that worked so creatively during lockdown to keep the fires burning are starting to emerge this spring.
Sometimes it’s just a quick tweak – as with BBC’s Come Dine With Me SA series, which will be back with a second half later this year after getting narrator Dave Lamb to record his voiceovers from home in the UK. But other shows were at points in their production where they had to reach further and dig deeper. Just take a look at how they did it!
Aside from fast-tracking local factual shows like kykNET Pandemie (Tuesdays at 21:00 on kykNET, DStv 144) to keep viewers informed with reliable, accurate news and talks by experts in the field, the team at kykNET had a massive job on their hands co-ordinating their local productions, all of which were impacted during the various lockdown phases. “I know that we will one day look back at Lockdown level 5 as a period of resilience due to the unstoppable determination of the people who work behind the scenes in television, and their dedication to create an uninterrupted experience for the rest of the country at home. On any given day, we have about 25-45 kykNET film and television projects at various stages of production. On 26 March we stopped,” recalls kykNET spokesperson Suzaan Keyter. “We were lucky that we were about to launch a new content slate, and therefore a lot of programmes such as the 13 episodes of Fynskrif were already being delivered for broadcast. However, shows such as Fiesta had no more live events and festivals to cover. In the face of these challenges, creativity peaked.
“The show KN Pandemie was on air within 10 days,” reveals Suzaan. “This show formed part of our current affairs slate, and gave us an opportunity to contextualise and create a platform to discuss the impact of COVID-19 as it was developing. Unique to the show is the answering of viewer questions and concerns around COVID-19, which they send to kykNET and the producers. The show has been extended due its popularity among viewers.”
Watch kykNET Pandemie S1 on Tuesdays on kykNET (DStv 144) at 21:00 or on Catch Up
Where COVID spelled challenges, to creative minds, it also spelled opportunity. Kwarantyn put a mirror of what viewers were experiencing at home, up onscreen on its very own Kwarantyn pop-up channel (DStv 149), as 2 families competed to spend 50 days in quarantine, locked in their separate houses. And on 29 July, one family was declared the winner. “Viewing behaviours changed overnight as daytime viewing increased (during lockdown level 5). Our director, Karen Meiring, had a programme proposal that she had been wanting to do for about two years, and this set off the planning for Kwarantyn. Some people would say it was luck, we like to think that the gods of television were kind to us when we realised one of our producers had two vacant adjacent houses in Randburg,” reveals Suzaan. “We had Kwarantyn on air within 9 weeks and the two families could keep the rest of us company while we isolated. We have received so many messages from viewers that were stuck in isolation alone or older viewers with the rest of their families abroad that thanked us for the company. These messages definitely touched our hearts.”
Kwarantyn S1 is available all the way from episode 1 on Catch Up
The second season of Emo Adams’ talent show has had to fight off everything that COVID-19 could throw at it. While Emo put his time in lockdown level 5 to good use by sitting at home editing the episodes that had already been recorded, from the moment that he’s come back, he and his team have been putting out fires. After they announced their Top 10 in episode 6 in June, Maak My Famous went into an 8-week production break to rethink how the show would work going forward.
“We did experience disruptions in production such as Maak my Famous and Spoorloos: Heksejag,” says Suzaan. “Production of these shows had to be stopped, and the casts and crews returned to their respective provinces. Behind the scenes, producers and the kykNET content teams kept working around the clock to find solutions and possible schedule changes that would not impact our viewers while ensuring the safety of the content creators. A lot of planning and risk management, in conjunction with the guidelines released by the government in their Gazette, was taking place. The lift of restrictions in the beginning of May ensured that we could resume certain projects,” says Suzaan.
“COVID-19 certainly made us approach things differently but also created the opportunity for us to try things that we really wanted to. Maak My Famous is now broadcast live on Saturdays and the viewers at home get to vote in real time. Sadly, the Namibian contestants had to leave the show due to the country being on a different lockdown level than South Africa. Time ran out for approvals to get the contestants back in the country and to adhere to isolation regulations and testing before the live shows started.”
Watch Maak My Famous S2 on Saturdays on kykNET (DStv 144) and KykNET & Kie (DStv 145) at 20:00 or on Catch Up
Making Travel shows during lockdown has presented some unique challenges. Leef Jou Reis host Gerrie Pretorius reveals, “As with the rest of the world, we were also restricted in where we could go. We were in Lapland filming when the rumours of Corona and a lockdown started but never imagined that we would actually go that far… once lockdown hit, we had 2 months before we had to start producing our very first episodes while at the same time having multiple trips cancelled and money lost in flights and accommodation and cruises like Alaska. We thus started negotiating with tourism authorities and local councils and made plans to film local content around the garden route and its hidden secrets. We managed to secure filming permits as media, and with protocol in place and local traffic police escorting us, we were still able to produce incredible content. We had no scripts in place and literally planned as we went. We filmed from Mosselbay, to the Hessequa district that is the gateway to the Garden Route.”
South African production companies have taken the government’s COVID-19 regulations for the industry extremely seriously. On the sets of our local soapies like Isibaya, COVID-19 is affecting everything, from the cast rehearsing with masks on, to re-writing Ntwenthle Ndlovu’s (Asavela Mngqithi) story to reflect the reality of life in 2020 – even for star-crossed lovers. “Ntwenthle is a cautious new mother who is aware that any contact with other characters might put her and her unborn baby at risk, she makes sure that everyone around her sanitises their hands and no physical contact whatsoever, even with Jabu (Palance Dladla), her lover” says Asavela. Every moment of touch, from love scenes to fights, to hugs between family members has to be thought about differently.
Isibaya actor Zakhele Mabasa (Skhaleni) adds that it has been by no means cheap, “Our producers have gone to a large extent in practising safety measures. You can actually tell a huge budget has been used just to ensure that we are safe on set.”
But COVID-19 is highly contagious (as we’ve seen from so many health professionals who’ve taken every precaution still suffering from exposure), and the impact on our local productions has been devastating. Shooting has to shut down for weeks for decontamination every time the illness makes its way into the building. It’s a fear that everyone on set lives with every day. Production on The River (weekdays on 1Magic, DStv 103, at 20:00) had barely gotten started back up again in May when it had to shut in early June after a crew member fell ill. Everyone who’d been in contact with that crew member then entered self-isolation for the 2-week quarantine period. COVID-19 also caused shutdowns on Isibaya when 2 cast members tested positive and had to self-quarantine in July.
In times like this, tone of communication is essential. And as the production company to director of M-Net local channels Nomsa Philiso, said, “Now more than ever, we need to show compassion to our fellow brothers and sisters, and we would like to wish the affected member of the production team a speedy recovery.” There was no hint of blame. It was a tone that was immediately echoed in fans’ social media posts. It’s not necessarily the first thing you’d think about when it comes to dealing with COVID, the smallest things might count the most.
Onscreen, Celebrity Mystery Box has been bringing us a fun cooking show, with celebs visiting the studio kitchens to compete to make the best dishes using the same mystery ingredients. The celebs and their cooking assistants are unmasked, and the atmosphere is casual with no social distancing between them and the judges. It looks like a normal cooking show and if it wasn’t for flashes of street scenes showing passers-by in their masks, you wouldn’t know that it was shot during our COVID times. But on location, the vibe behind the scenes was more like one of those forensic investigations. “It looks like a lab, basically. The crew on Celebrity Mystery Box had to wear full hazmat suits, those white lab suits. Before we went into each of the houses we were shooting at, they had to be fumigated with alcohol bombs. Everyone had to wash their hands regularly throughout the shoot, we had to have masks on. There were temperature checks in the morning when we walked in. All the ingredients had to be wiped down and sanitised. It was hectic!” host and judge LesDaChef revealed reently in DStv’s YouTube Roundtable. “It’s fascinating to see TV shows still being produced and you don’t realise just how much work has gone into that.”
Watch Celebrity Mystery Box S1 on Wednesdays on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) at 20:00 or on Catch Up
In Dloz’Lami, medium Thembi Nyathi helps grieving clients connect with the spirit world to ease their minds and help them find closure. And because she’d very much like to keep everyone on set in the land of the living at the end of the day, her production observes strict protocols around COVID-19. And that can be distressing, because the programme is by nature emotionally charged, yet Thembi isn’t able to offer the physical contact and comfort that she’d normally use instinctively, and she has to sit far further from the people who’ve come to her for help than she normally would. “Yoh, she exclaims. “A COVID set involves a lot of sanitising, a lot of temperature taking, masking, gloving, social distancing. Basically, it’s dehumanising, not to be able to touch, not being able to offer a hug.”
Watch Dloz’Lami on Tuesdays on Moja Love (DStv 157) at 22:00 or on Catch Up
On our screens, things will look relatively normal in this gripping new South African drama about parenting in South Africa – at any cost. “It was really, really hard. It felt like we went through a war together,” says actresses Anel Alexander, who plays gynaecologist Marieke, a woman trapped in the middle between motherhood and her career – her desire to do what’s right, and a friend’s shocking crime. “The crew, the cast, the producers, everyone had to band together even more than usual. We wouldn’t have been able to do this at all if we didn’t say, Okay, we need to finish this, and we need to finish this strong’. That’s something that nobody will see or notice onscreen. There were so many things that we weren’t able to do or that we had to work around, apart from the normal challenges, there were so many things thrown at us that people just needed to make plans, and they did. That’s what I love about South African crews. We don’t have money to throw at a problem, we have to solve a problem.” For the cast, that meant still pulling out their emotions (and so many tears) at the end of 16-hour days during an abbreviated shooting schedule.
Producer Luke Rous reveals that the lockdown happening in the middle of shooting led to some surprising problems to solve in this show about parenthood. “The shoot was only scheduled for 3 months but due to lockdown it extended to 5 months, which meant our babies grew out of continuity and we needed to cast younger babies,” he says. “Because of the lockdown and losing some of our locations for various reasons, we actually had to change the shooting location for the babies room 3 times, which meant the art department had to dress 3 different baby rooms – they got really good at it by the last one,” he adds.
Watch Inconceivable S1 from Thursday, 3 September on M-Net (DStv 101) at 20:00
Idols SA was able to film all its mass audition phases before lockdown happened in March, but not all the contestants who’d gotten through the mass auditions had even seen the judges before lockdown struck. There was loud rejoicing online when Idols went back into production in June. But behind the scenes, the production team was having to make plans left and right about everything from dressing the judges, to transporting musical guests and contestants (no more popping everyone on a bus together), to finding the few accredited hotels that were open to house their contestants – and get them up to Joburg for filming during lockdown level 3, which banned interprovincial travel without a permit.
Then it was hello to social distancing on set. “As Idols is a reality show, all that this meant is that we changed the way we told the story, with social distancing becoming part of the narrative. So, the group round at Theatre Week will be like nothing you have ever seen before,” says director and executive producer Gavin Wratten. There were plexiglass shields up between the judges, and the anyone on set interacted with the same limited number of crew members assigned to them (following the bio-bubble way of avoiding transmission). “Halfway through the audition tour, we introduced screens between the judges to enforce social distancing. We also placed the golden tickets on a plinth so that there was no physical interaction between judges and contestants,” reveals Gavin.
Throughout production, the team has had to deal with an enormous amount of uncertainty over what would happen next, and to be ready to hit the ground running. Going forward into September, Gavin knows that Idols may or may not have a live audience… depending. “The live shows only begin on the 20th September, so depending on what government regulations are in place at that time, we will amend our plans accordingly.”
Actor and comedian Thomas Gumede brightened everyone’s July when he launched this new show centred on looking at how everyone was coping with the pandemic locally and internationally. As well as looking back on how SA went into lockdown originally, he looked at both the lighter and more serious side of our lockdown lives, how parents were being affected, new hobbies that people got into, and what was happening around Africa. It was a beautiful way of highlighting how resilient, innovative and caring people were not just in South Africa, but throughout the African continent, as Thomas used social media to take us into our friends’, neighbours’ and celebrities’ lives. There’s nothing that brings joy and hope quite like Thomas showing us school kids’ new hand sanitising, social distancing dance that he dug up on the socials. It’s all about the attitude. Yes, we’re taking this seriously, but we’re still South African, and we will do it our way.
Watch The Lowdown With Thomas Gumede S1 on Thursdays on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) at 20:00 and Saturdays on 1Magic (DStv 103) at 20:00 or on Catch Up
The pandemic squatted itself right down in the middle of Lasizwe’s new season, halting and delaying his production and pushing the premiere date out from April all the way to August. S3 even starts with a bright red warning sign in honour of these times of crisis. And in editing, Lasizwe and his team added a “countdown to lockdown” over scenes that they filmed before lockdown stuck, which adds another ominous note of what’s to come.
Lasizwe had all the stress of the intense lockdown isolation, compounded with the worries of his new role as executive producer on his show. “There are some days where we have Zoom calls the whole day, and I’m jumping from one meeting to another, and there are some days when you are just so tired of being tired. You’re tired of closing your eyes. I’m tired of sleeping. I’m tired of eating. I’m tired of getting up and going to the living room and just watching TV. I just want my life to go back to normal. I appreciate this time, it’s amazing, thank all the gods, all the water, all the air, all the fire, but I just want to ask, ‘What were you thinking when you brought Corona to the world? Because this is what we did not sign up for!’ Ja, babe,” Lasizwe told us at the time.
Watch Lasizwe: Fake It Til You Make It S3 on Fridays on MTV (DStv 130) at 21:55 or on Catch Up
BET’s telenovela has South Africans shaking their TV sets going, “Where is it?” It’s safe to say that this is one of the year’s most anticipated new dramas. But COVID, lockdown and the like have led to significant production delays. They’re still hard at work, though, and series star Nthati Moshesh reveals, “The production company provides us with face masks and face shields. When we get on set, there’s a tunnel that we go through that sanitises our entire bodies. We also go through daily screenings, where a medic checks our temperatures. It’s a totally different ballgame. But this is the new norm. Catering has also changed. We no longer stand in queues to dish up food at lunch. Instead, we get pre-packaged meals. Our clothes at wardrobe are covered in plastic bags too. We were all tested in April, before filming resumed just to be on the safe side.”
Keep an eye out for Isono:The Sin S1 on BET (DStv 129) in September
PS: BET’s other local flagship show Behind The Story, hosted by Pearl Thusi, took the chance for a complete re-think. And when the new season premieres, we’ll see Pearl chatting to SA’s famous in Zoom call style.
DStv’s music channels brought the party into our homes during lockdown just when we needed it most. Who could forget the success of Channel O’s (DStv 322) Lockdown House Party during those first frightening days? Channel O viewership exploded, and the show trended to number 1 every Friday and Saturday from March to May – a historic first for Channel O.
“We love music in this country. I think being able to dance at home to your favourite artists, your favourite DJs is a blessing… It’s amazing,” says DJ PH. The response to the show’s initiative gave PH and his artist friends a boost of hope, more necessary than ever now with the live entertainment industry still mostly in lockdown. “It’s a step in the right direction. It’s an opportunity, it’s a blessing. It’s about thinking outside of the box and doing things differently and I think this is a different, new direction we can take.” Aside from turning the party, the show also grabbed the opportunity to reinforce messages about social distancing and sanitising. And on MTV Base (DStv 322), NewsIsh had their VJs filming themselves and reporting live from their own homes. Even regional channels are in on the game with CTV (DStv 263) hosting Hype It UP: Lockdown AfterParty (Fridays at 22:00) to allow Cape Town based DJ’s to play their sets live on air during lockdown. And everyone’s invited because it’s an “any genre welcome” party.
It certainly has us looking at our TV’s with a fresh eye!
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