New era, new ideas

THOUGHT LEADERS: Nataline Rodrigues, director of original programming at Rogers Sport & Media, is rethinking production models and looks forward to more innovation and new ways of doing business to come out of the lockdown.

Nataline Rodrigues

How has the pandemic impacted your business most significantly?
As it relates to original programming, Covid-19 is forcing us all to be more innovative and to rethink how things are done. We need new models in this industry. While we are facing significant challenges, the great news is that creativity is flourishing, so when the all-clear is given to resume production we’ll be ready with the safety of all in mind. Whether cast, crew or supporting departments such as post-production, we all need to work more thoughtfully together while apart.

As a result, story departments are holding virtual story rooms and opening up opportunities for writers wherever they may live. They are working to write the same escapist entertainment viewers are craving more than ever, while considering the safety of cast and crew. This means imagining new story worlds, settings and the number of characters that are needed on set to bring a story to life.

Production is rethinking how to populate offices and sets, how best to cast and travel, how to scout for locations and limit unit moves, as well as planning to have departmental pods so there is no cross-contamination. From sanitation to single-serve protocols in wardrobe, make-up and craft, there is a whole layer of precautions that will add extra time to the day and costs to production.

Over and above working remotely, post-production is also exploring what can be done via VFX to block and populate scenes to keep casts even safer. Financing, legal and business affairs teams are all exploring how to protect everyone’s investment, working with government, unions, guilds, banks and funding agencies so the show can go on.

Which projects have been affected and in what way?
All of our shows in active production were impacted and had to be shut down prematurely. For some series, like the third seasons of Second Jen and Blood & Water, these shows were in the midst of principal photography and are currently on hold until they can shoot again. These productions will have added shutdown and start-up costs that were not anticipated. There will also be key creative availability to consider that could impact when we can resume, complete the show and launch on air.

For series like The Wedding Planners, we also shut down early, but fortunately we were so close to wrap that we were able to come up with creative narrative solutions and implement these in post so delivery and broadcast were not delayed. For shows in development, the great news is that creators can imagine and write no matter where they live. By embracing technology and working virtually, we have been in full development mode.

When do you expect these projects to be back on track?
We hope to be back on track by mid-summer to fall. We are all awaiting government clearance as well as production insurance, guild and union responses on how best to account for Covid-19 in our new production reality. Rogers is being supportive of producers’ efforts, working to rethink how things are done across all budget line items so we can manage costs and make room for new cost considerations, all while not compromising on viewer expectations for compelling entertainment.

What new programming initiatives have you introduced to make up for the deficit brought about by these projects being put on hold?
So far we haven’t had to introduce new programming initiatives for our primetime line-up. All of our shows have been posting and delivering on time. The great news is that our original programming strategy continues to be on point in providing viewers with the escapist, feel-good entertainment that they want and love.

In terms of in-house production, our Breakfast Television, News and Cityline teams have been hard at work expanding the BT hour to be national at 9am to address new viewing habits. We’ve had more news specials from our teams working remotely and responding to the crises impacting the world at large, and Cityline worked quickly to develop a virtual WFH edition.

What have you learned through these initiatives as a result?
I’ve learned that there has never been a better time to collaborate and rethink how everything can be done more efficiently, with fewer resources on all fronts while bringing value to our shows. I also think more people have learned to embrace technology and work in new ways that are enrichening the creative and planning process.

How will your business be different after the pandemic?
The full extent of the impact has yet to be truly assessed as we are still living through it. I anticipate more than ever that our dependency on technology will increase so that we can communicate, create and innovate.

Travel will be a key consideration and I anticipate there will be less of it; global partnerships will have to rely on virtual and remote solutions. Talent will have to literally be secured closer to home, which should be great for Canadian key creatives and provide new opportunities for emerging talent. Until there is a vaccine, including health and safety measures as a line item on production budgets will be a reality.

Strategic thinking remains critical as we plan further into the future, as it relates to workflow and scheduling on all fronts. I anticipate budgets will continue to be stretched and we will all have to work together to figure out how to do more with less. We’ve always proceeded like nothing can stop us and tomorrow will always come but uncertainty remains, so we can’t take anything for granted anymore.

How do you think the business as a whole will be different?
We will all hopefully acknowledge how interdependent we are. We need to work to be more socially responsible and learn to value each other more while achieving our business goals. We all have to be more nimble and adaptable to whatever change may arise.

What will be your biggest challenge?
Until there is a vaccine, we all have to be prepared to shut down productions and what that can mean to schedules overall. If we hope to keep telling our own stories, producing our own content, I think government, industry organisations, unions, guilds and businesses all have to work together seriously on solutions that allow Canada to remain competitive on the global stage.

What will be the biggest opportunity?
There is a real opportunity to recognise that we don’t have to keep doing things like we’ve always done just because they’ve been done that way for so long. I hope to see new models and approaches to working implemented and adopted. Real opportunities lie in embracing technology and making space for new modes of storytelling and producing, as well as making room for other voices and talent who can now join the process remotely.

What ‘good’ has come of the pandemic?
Based on all of the emails and calls I’m getting, the creative spirit is alive and well despite these being very challenging times. On a more general note, I’m really heartened to see the good in people shine through. Seeing how resilient and adaptable we can all be, especially when we are working together for the common good, has been truly inspiring.

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