The Masked Singer returns to Fox on September 23 with a slew of celebrities donning new costumes, including a two-headed snow owl.
But this was not without its challenges with the adaptation of the Korean format having to navigate COVID-19 with its health and safety protocols and rising costs as part of its three-week shoot that ended earlier this month.
Fox Entertainment’s President of Alternative Entertainment and Specials Rob Wade tells Deadline how they did it.
Wade said that in season four, viewers will see more celebrities, but they will perform fewer times as part of a slight format refresh. “It’s a fun format for the viewer, because you’re getting a lot of reveals and you’re not getting too many chances to see the same person again, which makes the guessing more challenging. Every time you turn on, it feels fresh. Some shows can feel like go on interminably long but with this you’re seeing each person perform three times if they get through to the Super Six, there’s a two-hour Super Six, which is essentially the semi-final and then there’s the final, so the most you’re ever going to see someone perform is five times,” he said.
Designed by Marina Tobyina, the costumes this season, in addition to the snow owl, include the sun, a giraffe and popcorn. Exec producer Craig Plestis told Deadline that he wanted to ratchet up the weirdness of the show. “I want to increase the bonkers level and keep the production values up,” he said. “There are things that you’re going to see in [Season 4] that you haven’t seen anywhere else, not only here but anywhere in the globe,” he said.
The first three seasons of the Nick Cannon-hosted show were filmed at Television City but the fourth was shot at Red Studios and shot quicker than in the past to accommodate for the pandemic. “It was quick, it was efficient, it was incredibly risky financially and we did it. Everyone was healthy,” he said.
The production included regular testing, zoning, social distancing, sanitization and non-sharing of communal areas. “We went above and beyond the outlines of the CDC and local authorities in order to keep people safe,” he said.
Wade added that although non-scripted shows have largely been able to get back into production quicker than their scripted siblings, there are also different challenges on big-budget entertainment formats. “On a scripted show, they rent their sets for the entire year. If you stop on one of those shows for a week or two, there’s obviously a problem with the scheduling and the cost but on non-scripted show if you get pushed for a week or two, you suddenly don’t have a studio, people that were supposed to be there aren’t available, the knock on effect is crippling so it was good to get it done,” he said.
The added twist this year was fan voting. A virtual audience has been given the chance to influence the outcome of the show with their votes helping to determine who goes through. “It feels that through virtual reality and composite and reaction shots, we managed to create the feeling that there were people in the room,” he said, adding that there was a small number of people in the audience behind judges Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthy, Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke. “It’s going to feel very much like [previous seasons], it’s not going to feel different. You’ll notice that the audience will feel like it’s behind the judges. The one thing I’m expecting is for people to say is ‘How come they’re not COVID friendly? The audience aren’t wearing masks.’ Through various quarantining and various camera tricks, we’ve managed to do it.”
Filming through COVID-19 has made production on these shows more expensive. The general wisdom is that budgets have had to increase by around 10%, although in many cases this can be up to 15% as a result of all of the extra costs that are not directly associated with the virus. For instance, The Masked Singer purposefully overbooked celebrities this season in case there were any drop outs but, in the end, all of the celebrities performed.
The Masked Singer was the latest COVID-19 friendly non-scripted production for Fox following shows such as Celebrity Watch Party and I Can See Your Voice. Wade said that he’s gotten quite used to this process and he expects it to continue for some time.
“The mistakes you make in these positions, in any crisis situation is thinking that it’s going to end. You have to assume that this is the status quo for the foreseeable future. I don’t even put a date on it now, this is how we need to make television,” he added
Next up for the broadcaster is The Masked Singer spin-off The Masked Dancer, which is currently in pre-production and will also shoot at Red Studios. Wade admits that making a new show, as opposed to one that’s already been on air, is trickier. For one, “we knew what it was supposed to look like” and in the case of The Masked Dancer, there’s a lot more rehearsals because the celebrities will be learning choreography.
“Our focus is just to create an environment where people can work safely and manage those conditions,” he added.
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