How ‘American Idol,’ ‘Survivor’ And ‘The Voice’ Are Wrapping Up Their Seasons

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, these reality competition shows plan to conclude runs with Zoom performances and video chat reunions. But how will it work?
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

The highly anticipated anniversary season of “Survivor” kicked off in February as 20 former and beloved winners began their treacherous 39-day battle for a groundbreaking $2 million prize. Since then, it’s been a run of ups and downs with old-school and new-school players attempting to outwit, outplay and outlast their competition on a remote island in Fiji.

Little did the producers know, however, COVID-19 would be the lowest blow yet.

Amid the pandemic that’s seen Hollywood productions completely shut down, reality series that usually go live toward the end of their runs need to rejigger plans. How will CBS celebrate the culmination of a momentous winners-only season if the contestants are in mandatory quarantine? And how will NBC and ABC air “The Voice” and “American Idol” live performances if hosts, judges, contestants and crew are being told to self-isolate at home? Since they can’t move ahead with typical shooting schedules, showrunners are imagining up new ways to conclude their seasons ― and they all involve going virtual.

Instead of hosting a reunion show in front of a live studio audience filled with castaways, their families and fans, “Survivor” host Jeff Probst will read the final votes and announce the champion of Season 40’s “Winners at War” over video chat on May 13. “During the finale, Jeff will also virtually connect by video with all 20 players to discuss the highlights of the season,” a CBS announcement said.

Probst told Entertainment Weekly that nothing is set in stone and producers are still exploring options on how to make the reunion as enjoyable, and functional, as possible. The special will follow a two-hour finale, which, like the rest of Season 40, was filmed last summer. Although the final episode usually airs with live check-ins from Probst from the reunion stage at CBS Television City, no plan has been made in terms of this year’s structure. But it can be presumed that during the start of the live portion, the three finalists will be shown on-screen from their homes while Probst announces a winner.

It may not be the ideal end for a season featuring the greatest, most respected players in “Survivor” history, but it will do.

“We will, of course, do our best to make it fun,” Probst promised. “A traditional live finale would have been awesome, but hey, this is ‘Survivor,’ and now we’re having to deal with a twist of our own. We’ll get it all sorted!”

Jeff Probst addresses the cast at the "Survivor: Island of Idols" finale and reunion show in December 2019.
Jeff Probst addresses the cast at the "Survivor: Island of Idols" finale and reunion show in December 2019.
CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

“Survivor” has seen a solid boost in viewership this season, which could be thanks to the winners-only lineup or the fact that people are in lockdown and depending on TV content to fill their day.

“I think it definitely serves as an escape for many and is so badly needed right now,” Lori DelliColli, vice president of entertainment communications at CBS, told HuffPost. “We’ve heard from a lot of fans who are binge watching old seasons because they have the extra time.”

“The Voice” ratings have also been up in recent weeks. The NBC singing competition series, currently in its 18th season with coaches Blake Shelton, John Legend, Kelly Clarkson and Nick Jonas, is still airing pre-taped episodes but reportedly plans to also go virtual starting May 4 for the live shows, which usually film at Universal Studios Hollywood in front of a large studio audience.

Although the network hasn’t confirmed anything, Shelton did mention to Jimmy Fallon over video chat on “The Tonight Show” last week that he’ll have to coach his team members electronically.

“Especially in LA, we’re not going to be ready to, you know, have events again,” Shelton said. “It’s gonna be crazy. We’re gonna have to coach like this, it’s just gonna have to be worked out this way, it’s gonna be nuts.”

NBC told HuffPost that it had “no firm updates” on what the plan was, but one can assume it might end up resembling ABC’s production strategy for Season 3 of the rebooted “American Idol,” which will air its first virtual episode this Sunday, April 26.

The contestants, host Ryan Seacrest, mentor Bobby Bones, and judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie will all join the program remotely from different locations. The Top 20 will then perform from home, receive the judges’ critiques and fight for America’s votes. And although it will have the feeling of being live, the show will actually be pre-recorded the day before to ensure no technical glitches mess up the experience. (Producers are also making sure all the contestants have the same internet capabilities so their performances can be judged fairly.)

“We’ve very conscious that this is a music show and it’s gotta be good,” Trish Kinane, the showrunner-executive producer of “Idol” and president of entertainment at Fremantle, told Billboard. “So you’ve got the contestant in their home on Zoom, the pianist in their home and the vocal coach in their home on a Zoom, all doing virtual vocal coaching sessions. And then Megan [Michaels Wolflick, executive producer] and I will come in for an executive run through on a different Zoom when they’ve got something to show us. And Kris [Pooley, music director] and the band are recording tracks and mixing them and sending them to the contestants. We’ve been careful to try and make this as high-quality as possible, especially the sound. So I hope the sound on this is gonna be really great, even though it’s remotely. It’s not just sitting at home with your iPhone singing.”

As complicated as that sounds, we’ve seen production teams getting very creative in quarantine as their normal programming routines are on hold. Take the late night world, for instance, which has seen great success with remote shows. Once in-studio productions were suspended, hosts slowly began to trickle onto YouTube, with Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon kicking off the trend of at-home segments. Almost immediately, Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee, Conan O’Brien, Trevor Noah and the rest joined the mix.

Bee, for one, said this moment is the ultimate adventure.

“I’m basically just trying to put one foot in front of the other,” she told The New York Times. “I know that we can make a show. As long as there’s internet.”

If the service is good, the show(s) must go on.

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