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CNN, ABC Bet Big on TV-News ‘Town Hall’ Shows

Some of the nation’s biggest TV-news outlets seem obsessed with capturing the feel of a small town.

TV-news junkies seeking to get the opinion of the average citizen on the day’s top issues  have been in luck this week. On Fox News Channel Monday, Megyn Kelly hosted a panel of about 30 people  –   activists, religious leaders, gun advocates and law enforcement authorities – to discuss the issues of police and race in America. CNN has for two days pre-empted regular programming: on Tuesday, it let people talk to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan; and last night, Don Lemon convened an emotional assemblage of families of victims, government officials and others in the wake of the shootings of several police officers in Dallas. The shows are “town halls,” programs that mix traditional news anchors with the average citizens they deliver information to each day.

Walt Disney will take the concept to new levels this evening. A one-hour discussion featuring President Barack Obama, police officials and even families of recent victims of police-involved deaths will be moderated by anchor David Muir and broadcast at 8 p.m. eastern across ABC, cable networks ESPN and Freeform and various digital and radio outlets.

“We think they are making a difference,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington Bureau chief and a senior vice president, in an interview.

TV news has cracked open the door of the “town hall” concept many times over the years. In a frenzied election cycle, however, the networks are kicking it down.  The presence of the format is growing across the set-top box. CNN has aired about 15 “town hall” events since the start of the year, Feist estimated. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow drew attention in late January for bringing together residents of the town of Flint, Michigan, where flaws in lead pipes have led to a water crisis. Even ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today” have gotten in on the act, bringing leading candidates in the race for U.S. President to talk to talk to morning viewers.

“There’s a new view, a modern view, of something that was in vogue many years ago,” said James Goldston, president of ABC News, in an interview. “”This is the renaissance of the ‘town hall.’” ABC last year further bent the genre last summer by arranging for Pope Francis to meet with groups of students, congregants and the homeless via satellite for what it dubbed a “virtual” extension of the format.

The events are not inexpensive. TV networks often have to book new venues to hold studio audiences, and spend time screening people who have a connection to the topic at hand. And yet, ratings for debates among the Republican and Democratic candidates for President were sky-high for many of the TV networks this year, and TV-news outlets may be pursuing town halls in the hopes of fueling similar results, suggested Neal Shapiro, a former president of NBC News who is now president and CEO of public-broadcaster WNET.

“Town halls can be really useful if you get to hear people speaking openly and passionately and sometimes hopefully. Those passions can speak to personal feelings, and your audience can sometimes hold on to that and see an issue differently,” he said. “Where I think there is danger is if it becomes all about heat and not about light. Sometimes, that’s the case, too.”

The events seem like natural ones for a viewer base working its way through the U.S. election cycle and a world fraught by terrorism and economic disparity, and for TV-news networks eager to jump on the latest trending topic that has engaged audiences. The town halls also seem to dispense with much of the formality of TV-news programs, where an anchor keeps a lid on what might break out into a more raucous affair as talking heads with opposing views on an issue start to argue.

“There is, unfortunately, a general distrust of the media, which has been exacerbated by the extreme polarization between politicians and their partisans,” noted Larry Burriss, a professor in the School of Journalism at Middle Tennessee State University. “Town hall programs thus help to relieve this distrust by giving voters what appears to be an active role in the news-gathering process.”

The format has been in use for decades, but to modern TV-news practitioners, one hallmark example is the series of “town meetings” showcased at various times on ABC’s “Nightline” when it was anchored by Ted Koppel. In one memorable instance, Koppel and producers in 1987 led a more than four-hour discussion on the growing AIDS epidemic. The episode lasted until almost four in the morning (In an earlier era, “Nightline” would start after the late local news). “There are people here who worked on many of those projects, “ said Goldston, the ABC News chief.

The networks appear to embrace different town-hall tactics. CNN treats them as special events, said Feist, even going so far as to build new sets on occasion. Fox News Channel appears to prefer keeping its popular schedule of programs intact, weaving town-hall elements into airings of “The Kelly File,” which already does shows that involve focus groups.

Do town halls have a life after the current election, which has drawn a broader audience to the news cycle?  The format works best with topics that spur strong feelings, said Shapiro, and often serve to help a network stay on a story when there  are no new developments or scoops. “You’re not going to see a town hall on the tax code, even though tax reform is a huge issue,” he said. “You’re not going to find the audience to sit in the arena and you’re not going to find the audience at home that really cares all that passionately.”

And there are, of course, questions about ratings. CNN said its Tuesday- and Wednesday-night town hall events generated significant surges in audience, though both programs did not beat regularly scheduled programming on Fox News Channel. If TV’s news outlets find that viewers remain as engaged after the election is over, the events might stick around. And if passionate viewers find something else that excites them, said Shapiro, “I don’t think you’ll have the audience to do many town halls.”

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