Sitting in NBC’s venerable Studio 1A, Andy Lack had to be thinking in 3D.
Playing out for the chairman of NBC News on dozens of screens was the network’s broadcast of its coverage of the 2018 midterm elections, with Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell hashing out the latest voter data. Elsewhere in the same building, however, other pieces of Lack’s news operation were also playing out. At MSNBC, Rachel Maddow, Brian Williams, Nicolle Wallace and Chris Matthews were anchoring a different broadcast – one that would go on through the night, with Willie Geist taking the reins at 2 a.m. And earlier in the evening, Stephanie Ruhle had worked to jump-start a new broadband service, NBC News Signal, with an election preview.
“I do think there’s a real swirl around this election,” said Lack, perched behind a row of producers and top NBC News executives on Tuesday night as staffers scrambled to produce content for the night. A new generation of voters is coalescing around news, he explained. It’s one that wants tons of information – and quickly.
Studio 1A is known for being the hub of NBC’s “Today” show, but last night it might have been a place for all the nation’s news networks to consider tomorrow.
Technology and a fascination with how the nation will proceed under President Trump has quickly pushed the news outlets to rework themselves for a new era. As more consumers get their first headlines from social media and smartphone alerts, news executives need to consider streaming mobile video as well as cable schedules and the evening news, all the better to compete in new ways against media outlets with roots in print that were once regarded as less-direct rivals. And they need to do it with speed – without sacrificing accuracy. The result: More anchors who continue to work like beat reporters and more shows that are built to disseminate headlines of the highest order.
A behind-the-scenes look at some of the news outlets on Election Night tells the tale. At ABC News headquarters in Manhattan, a two-tiered set allowed George Stephanopoulos and an array of correspondents and contributors to illustrate wins and losses on a ground level, while a separate team worked to transmit news to streaming audiences from above. In a different part of the building, staffers for Five Thirty-Eight, an ABC News site that does data-driven analysis of politics, were taping segments for the next morning for an audience eager to sift through voting results. Meanwhile, over at CBS News, the team of anchors who work “CBS This Morning” – Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell, John Dickerson and Bianna Golodryga – helped anchor coverage until 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, then got back on set for their usual A.M. job at 7 a.m. for another five hours of coverage.
All of this takes place as broadcast networks have started to cede more of their schedules to breaking-news coverage. CBS, ABC, NBC and PBS gave up most of their daytime schedules to televise Brett Kavanaugh’s recent Senate hearing. Last night, ABC, CBS and NBC devoted all three hours of primetime to election coverage; in years past, it’s usually been just one.
“I think this is the new normal,” says Sam Feist, senior vice president and Washington Bureau chief of CNN.
There’s good reason to keep changing: money. Total revenue and profit have been surging at Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN, according to Pew Research Center. Cable-news profit rose to $2.7 billion in 2017, according to data from SNL Kagan, compared with nearly $1.68 billion in 2014. Revenue, largely from advertising and distribution fees, rose to nearly $4.99 billion in 2017, compared with $3.61 billion in 2014. And advertisers have ramped up significantly more on the broadcast outlets’ evening news and morning shows between those years, according to Pew Research.
But keeping things going is hard work. Intense interest in the Trump cycle has come with backlash – a president and other government officials who undermine the media with calls of “fake news” (even a prominent member of one of the news networks, Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel, has used the term).
“Because of all the allegations of fake news and misinformation, there’s a real wake-up call for a lot of journalists and news programs: ‘How can we keep our audience?’” said Lyndsay Hoffman, associate director at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication. “Changes in news programming are really motivated by keeping those ad dollars and keeping those eyeballs. There’s more than a bit of crisis in confidence in news.”
With that in mind, perhaps, many big TV-news operations are doubling down on more live programming and on-screen talent well-versed in breaking big stories.
CNN started letting Don Lemon run well over his 10 p.m. hour way back in 2016. Now all three cable-news networks run original programs at 11 p.m., a timeslot once used to re-air primetime shows from earlier in the day. Interest in late-night news -a new competitor to late-news broadcasts from local TV stations – has given rise to Brian Williams’ “The 11th Hour” on MSNBC as well as Shannon Bream’s “Fox News @ Night” on Fox News Channel.
Viewers are also seeing more anchors with hard-won experience in Washington get more of a spotlight. CNN has dispatched Jim Sciuitto, a veteran of the national-security beat, to co-anchor one of its mid-morning programs. Starting next week, on November 12, Brianna Keilar, a veteran Washington correspondent, will start anchoring a new 1 p.m. show on the network, says Feist, noting that CNN is doing more hours each day with personnel from the nation’s capital.
And each TV-news operation has beefed up its digital-news engine. NBC News and CNN now break news of import each day online, rather than waiting for TV programs to get into gear. Fox News is about to launch Fox Nation, a subscription-based streaming-video service that will have twice-daily commentary from Tomi Lahren, documentaries and even contributions from prime-time stars like Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. CBS News has launched a digital morning program on CBSN and ABC News Live aims to deliver its viewers the most compelling as-they-happen moments by monitoring dozens of video feeds.
With speed, however, comes a new wariness. “The balance between speed and accuracy is exceptionally important,” said Wendy Fisher, vice president of newsgathering at ABC News. “If you’re first and wrong, you fail.” CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell feels a growing need to provide the facts – and more. “My job is still the same, but I feel an even greater responsibility to provide context – factual context, historical context.”
What’s being left behind is the notion of the anchor who ties everything together from a studio while others go out in the field. More of the journalists assigned to those jobs continue to work beats of their own. Peter Alexander was recently named a co-anchor of the Saturday broadcast of NBC News’ “Today,” but remains a national correspondent who continues to cover the White House. He will have to commute to New York to fulfill his “Today” duties. CNN’s Sciutto continues to monitor Washington news even as he works CNN mornings. He too must travel between New York and D.C. At CBS News, Vladimir Duthiers was named a co-anchor of the CBSN A.M. show, but also has other duties. He joins the program after its first half hour.
“Everybody at every different level is taking on more roles,” said Fisher.
No one expects the swirl to cease. Viewers clearly want more news, delivered faster, and are more intrigued than ever with what might happen next in the nation’s capital. “The pace of the news cycle has been relentless,” says Christopher Isham, CBS News’ Washington Bureau chief. “A large part of it is the story of this particular president. He moves fast and breaks things.” Among those scattered pieces, apparently, are some of TV news’ longstanding processes.