Where is it Safe to Make Television? COVID, “Don’t Say Gay,” and the Instability of Spatial Capital

News coverage of thousands gathering to hear women in the film and television industry speak at a May 2022 March for Reproductive Rights in Downtown Los Angeles.
Myles McNutt looks at how the issue of safety is redrawing the map of US television production, from Covid-19 to new forms of discriminative legislation on issues such as abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on television cities.]

In the introduction to my book, Television’s Spatial Capital: Location, Relocation, Dislocation, I open with a seemingly simple question: where does television take place?

The answer is, of course, deeply complicated, and in writing the book I explored the various ways what I term “spatial capital” is negotiated through the city in which a show is filmed and set, and how those locations are interpreted by producers, distributors, critics, and audiences alike. The final representation that we see onscreen is the byproduct of spatial capital, or the value placed on location at each stage of production, whether in the dollars and cents concern over which filming location offered the best incentive program, the professional expertise of the location manager tasked with doubling one city for another, or the marketing and promotions team that made a show’s setting part of the paratextual material surrounding it. Sometimes this negotiation of spatial capital leads to a show set in New York being shot in New York—other times, that show shoots in Toronto, or Atlanta, or really any location that offers the resources to make that production viable. In either case, every TV show works to engage with spatial capital, but through different strategies necessitated by the circumstances of their production.

This negotiation is not new, but one of the core emphases of my book was how this negotiation of spatial capital has complexified beyond how it was originally conceptualized. For instance, the notion of “runaway production” captured the expansion of cities hosting television productions, but it reinforced Los Angeles as a “default” at a time when productions begin their lives untethered to any one location. I reframed this as “mobile production” in order to capture how the instability of media capital can change the terms of this negotiation, which we have primarily conceptualized as adjustments to state or national incentive programs changing the “math” on which series are more advantageous for television production.

As I was completing the book, however, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the volatility of television’s spatial capital on a much larger scale in ways that I’m still thinking about a year after submitting the final manuscript. COVID-19’s impact on the question of “where television takes place” was swift, highlighting the ability for established borders and boundaries to shift at a moment’s notice should the circumstances demand it. And while considering the contours of spatial capital within COVID-19 is itself valuable, its most significant contribution came from its gestures to the increasingly volatile political landscape in the United States that will increasingly define the question of where television takes place—and more importantly, where can it take place safely—based on its current judicial and legislative trajectory.

While there are numerous case studies that showcase the instability of spatial capital, the COVID-19 pandemic stands out because of its global impact on television production. Rather than impacting one show or one city, COVID-19 forced an industry-wide reconsideration of spatial capital. It canceled shows that had built their brands on globe-trotting production, created new opportunities for foreign-shot series to fill US broadcast schedules depleted by COVID shutdowns, and it forced producers to look to both existing media capitals and emergent ones in search of a space where they could feel confident they could produce television both safely and efficiently.

However, once the initial industry shutdown concluded and production resumed, the balance between safety and efficiency became a moving target. Initially, low virus rates in my home province of Nova Scotia in Canada led to a production boom, as it was a “safe haven” for productions looking to avoid costly COVID shutdowns. Amazon’s The Summer I Turned Pretty, which debuted this month, was originally slated to be produced in the province last summer. But before production could begin, the tides of spatial capital shifted much like the historic tides of the Bay of Fundy: Amazon pulled The Summer I Turned Pretty from the province because US states were beginning to ease their own COVID-19 restrictions at a time when Canada maintained border testing requirements and Nova Scotia continued to have strict gathering limits. While it may still have been “safer” to film in Canada with lower virus levels, the economic costs of quarantine procedures and negotiating the uncertainty of the rules in place made it easier for Amazon to embrace the mobility of production and relocate to Wilmington, North Carolina.1Ultimately, Nova Scotia’s film community felt this was a blessing in disguise, as they were facing a depleted crew base and limited resources to support the productions they were drawing in.

Watching this play out in real time reinforced that although the pandemic initially appeared as a singular and unprecedented event, eventually it became one variable among many in terms of how the landscape of North American television production sits atop the sociopolitical landscape of the United States. While there was a stark distinction between COVID policies in Canada and the United States, smaller distinctions between states made a difference: for instance, production resumed a month earlier in Georgia, a Republican-led state that swiftly moved to use a restart of film and television production to “jump-start the economy,” than in California, which took its time in developing and deploying those guidelines in part because they required the approval of local health jurisdictions, a step that Georgia skipped. As the pandemic wore on, the shifting virus rates and individual state approaches to mask policies, gathering restrictions, and other COVID concerns became a lived reality of television production, with workers in locations without strong policies in place faced with a more dangerous work environment.

And while the global scale of COVID may have made this particularly visible, it reminds us that marginalized individuals within film and television production have long been forced to take the varying protections into consideration when considering where they can take jobs within the United States. North Carolina may have been the beneficiary of Nova Scotia’s strict COVID protocols, but it lost at least one production based on the 2016 introduction of HB-2, known as the “Bathroom Bill,” targeting trans youth in the state. While the parts of the bill specifically targeting trans individuals were removed, enough remained that Netflix refused to allow Outer Banks—set in one of the state’s most valued tourist destinations—to film in the state in 2019, leading them to shift to Charleston, South Carolina instead.2It is worth noting that Netflix allegedly made an active stand against anti-trans legislation while simultaneously platforming transphobic stand-up routines by Dave Chapelle and Ricky Gervais on their service, suggesting some mixed messaging within the company.

However, this type of active boycott of a location based on legislation is actually quite rare in the United States: while the dynamics of COVID protocols may have moved mobile productions to different cities than they might have landed in otherwise, television productions are still loath to abandon financially amenable circumstances based on factors they perceive as external to the production itself. Returning to Georgia, there was pushback from film and television producers to Georgia’s 2019 “Heartbeat Bill,” which banned abortion at six weeks before it was ruled unconstitutional and never put into practice; major studios threatened to boycott the state, whose significant incentives have turned Atlanta into a pivotal production hub. But much as major studios continued to work in North Carolina in the wake of HB-2, major shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead made no efforts to abandon Georgia when the “Heartbeat Bill” made its way through the state legislature, and simply kept quiet and breathed a sigh of relief when the bill fizzled out in the face of constitutional challenges.

However, as the industry recovers from the industry-wide impacts of COVID, circumstances like those in North Carolina and Georgia are rising to the surface: while COVID remains a very real concern as new variants and waves push against the industry’s continued mitigation efforts to maintain production, it is these other forms of legislation that feel like they will have the largest impact on the shifting borders of television production in the years ahead. The US Supreme Court has begun the dismantling of the abortion protections offered by Roe v. Wade, likely inviting further challenges to protections for other marginalized groups who are under siege by Republican legislatures like those that passed the “Bathroom Bill” and the “Heartbeat Bill.” With the rights of individuals increasingly being left to individual states, there will be nothing standing in the way of these states moving forward with such legislation, as we’re already seeing with Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” Texas’s attack on trans youth and their families, and Oklahoma’s introduction of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws.

This shift in the Supreme Court comes in the wake of increased polarization following the 2016 election of Donald Trump. As I look at the political landscape, I think back to my trip to the AFCI Locations Show in 2014 in completing research for my book. As I spoke to representatives of states like Michigan and Oklahoma, the political dynamics of spatial capital were purely about the viability of tax incentives, and each state’s appetite to subsidize production using taxpayer dollars. But looking back, that conception of “volatility” feels downright quaint compared to the post-2016 environment wherein a state like Oklahoma is now going to need to convince producers to come to a state that has made performing an abortion a felony. None of the states or countries pitching themselves at that Locations Show are going to have the legal restrictions on marginalized groups on their posters or backdrops, but as American democracy falls further into a pit of despair, it will have a profound effect on where television takes place.

Or, it should, rather. Major studios may push back as they did in 2017 and 2019, but the example of Florida’s retribution against Disney for belatedly—and reluctantly—speaking out against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in that state sets the tone for a culture war of false flags around issues of sexuality, gender, and “critical race theory” that underlines the oppressive nature of hegemonic ideologies in states without legal protection for those affected. While studios banded together to push back against single bills, are they able or willing to wage war against all twenty-two states with laws restricting abortion access that would go into effect if “Roe v. Wade” is overturned? Or will they hide behind the presumed authority of the Supreme Court and simply suggest that they wish to state out of politics, much as Disney hoped to before public pressure grew earlier this year?

One of the key takeaways from my book, though, was how shifts in spatial capital disproportionately affect television workers, who are often forced to relocate to find work, and who will be faced with incredibly difficult decisions as the fractured nature of American democracy expands in the years ahead. It’s one thing for a studio to make a decision whether it is culturally acceptable for them to do business in a given state given its political climate; it is entirely another for a female employee to determine whether they would be able to receive life-saving care in a city whether they were working on a production, or for a parent of a trans child wondering if moving their family to find work might make them a criminal for affirming their child’s gender.

And so as Republican-led states mount challenges to a woman’s right to choose, gay couples’ right to marry, and trans people’s right to exist, workers who fall under their jurisdiction will be placing their health and safety in danger to work in those states if the industry continues to patronize them. It’s too soon to tell whether this might move more production to states like California or New York, or out of the country to Canada. But at a May 2022 rally, actress Lisa Ann Walter told a star-studded Los Angeles rally in support of abortion rights that “I can’t work in Texas anymore,” and announced that SAG-AFTRA was working to inform its membership about reproductive rights in all states. But as this situation devolves, the same will need to be done for LGBTQIA+ individuals and their families. And frankly, people of color within the industry have likely always had to consider how they will be treated differently in certain locations when choosing whether to take a given job, but this will become more integral as veiled attacks on critical race theory underline and foreground the place of systemic racism within the country’s past, present, and future.

While the risks associated with COVID may have had global industry impacts that affected all workers equally, it underlined realities of external forces’ impact on the negotiation of spatial capital that specifically pose a threat to marginalized individuals. Concerns over discrimination have always already been a part of the reality of where a television show is produced, but current circumstances have moved them to the forefront of our cultural conversations and—one hopes—the decision-making of stakeholders of spatial capital in the challenging years ahead.

Notes[+]

McNutt, Myles. "Where is it Safe to Make Television? COVID, “Don’t Say Gay,” and the Instability of Spatial Capital." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2022)
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