On a recent episode of AEW Unrestricted, AEW President and CEO Tony Khan spoke with Tony Schiavone and Aubrey Edwards about AEW's TV tapings through the COVID-19 pandemic. Khan discussed planning everything out and making sure that anyone who doesn't want to be part of the tapings didn't have to.
"I knew there was a good chance the Rochester show for the following week and obviously the Newark show for the following week were not going to come off, and we had to pivot and think about all these things. I think what was hard for me was that I didn't want to force anybody to work under these circumstances," Khan said. "So when we were in Salt Lake City, I told everybody this is totally voluntary from here on out. Next week's show, I don't know if it's going to be in Rochester or in Jacksonville, but we're going to be in one or the other, and we had to figure it out pretty quick honestly.
"That night, I knew we were going to have to make a lot of changes if we wanted to keep putting on shows. I talked to the network. They were pretty excited for us to keep putting on shows. At Salt Lake City was where I thought I would make it crystal clear to you guys that this is totally voluntary enterprise, and I'm glad. Some people have taken me up on it. I'm glad because the last thing I want is for anybody to feel uncomfortable in a work environment."
It was reported in mid-April that WWE was deemed an essential business by the state of Florida. Khan says that he had never planned on making AEW an essential business and only hoped to get as much done before Florida and Georgia shut down businesses.
"I had an inkling that things were going to get shut down heading going into that third show which is where we taped all these shows," Khan admitted. "Going in, you started seeing states were starting to shut down, and I never considered us or tried to force us to be an essential business. I never tried to stay open against restrictions. When we heard Florida and Georgia were going to shut down, we were shutting down too, and we needed to tape as much content as we could before that shut down.
"So we were actually at the live television show, you guys were both there, at the beginning of April. So on April 1, I had thought maybe we should stay together and do some taping, and I wasn't sure how long we were going to need to tape for, but I had set it up where we had the ability to keep people in the Georgia area. Everybody wanted to stay. We'd be able to accommodate everybody. I told everybody when they came, we might be here a couple of days if everybody's OK with that because we might need to tape extra shows. I don't know."
AEW has had wrestlers in the crowd as a substitute for a live crowd. Khan revealed that he got the idea from watching the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and seeing Fallon have his writers and staff in his audience.
"Basically, we thought we had a couple of days to get all of this stuff done and talk to people, come up with ideas and figure stuff out. We had a limited crew. Then going into the live show, we thought let's get through this live show because that's pretty hard to do every week as it is, and we'll get through this live show. We'll regroup. I have some ideas, and here's some stuff we can do for the next several days. And we're gonna put some great shows together. Let's get through the night. Well then, going into the live show, Florida and Georgia announced the shut downs, which I think was two hours before this live show.
"My favorite of these are probably the first one we did in Jacksonville and the most recent one we aired this past week so March 18 and this past week's episode which would be April 29," Khan said. "So the March 18 episode, we started doing with an audience of wrestlers around the ring. When I went to Salt Lake City and decided we were going to Jacksonville later that weekend, I started watching a lot of programming. I watched a lot of wrestling and watched a lot of other stuff too to get a feel for what people were doing with the restrictions without an audience. The thing that really captivated me, I have a really good friend who is a writer for Jimmy Fallon and he works for the Tonight Show, I watched the shows that Jimmy Fallon was doing without an audience, and he had his writers and his band in the studio, a small group of people. They're laughter and that exchange they had, it made all the difference, and I watched other talk shows where they were just there kind of cold. I just thought that the Tonight Show and Jimmy Fallon were really onto something, and I thought that was something that we really wanted to do."
Schiavone and Khan said that AEW had considered airing past PPVs but thought the idea was lazy. Khan said that Dynamite was meant to be fresh and new every week. He has said that he told TNT that they would be down in business which he says they have been.
"It would have been very easy, I think, for us to just roll in video tape from a PPV, but I told you that's a lazy way to do things," Schiavone said. "We kept it fresh every week.
"And I never wanted to put people at risk and do that. We talked about doing that, but I'm really proud of the shows that we put out without having to put those PPVs on television because that's not what they were designed to be. We're not playing classic matches on Dynamite. Dynamite is supposed to be a fresh, new show," Khan said. "You don't necessarily need to go live. We only taped one show ever before this, and it was the Jericho Cruise. Obviously there when you have a live audience, there's gonna be spoilers, and we had them there.
"I told the network, we'll be down 10 percent. We were literally down 10 percent. I just wanted to make it possible to keep doing shows but not put anybody under pressure they're uncomfortable doing."
One thing that Khan says he's proud of it the fact that they have not shut down while also respecting the stay-at-home orders. He also reiterates the point that AEW has never tried to be bigger than any other business.
"For me, I'm very proud of the fact that we didn't shut down that we never violated the stay-at-home orders and just waited for the state to re-open businesses and come back because I just didn't want to put anybody in that position. Also, I didn't want to try to say we're above any kind of business or do any kind of thing that anybody else would be able to do, so that's why we tried to get as much stuff in."
If you use any quotes from this article, please credit AEW Unrestricted with a h/t Wrestling Inc. for the transcription.