Here’s some news David Muir probably won’t deliver on ABC: In recent months, his “World News Tonight” has become one of the most-watched programs on the network — and much of broadcast TV. Since Muir joined the evening newscast as anchor in 2014, the program has experienced what ABC executives might call a happy reversal: More people are watching overall, an intriguing feat given some of the audience challenges that evening news programs have faced over the decades. Speaking with Variety, the anchor explains what modern viewers want from evening news shows and offers some insight into how he handles matters behind the desk and in the field.
Critics say the evening news is less relevant than it was in an earlier age. But you’ve brought new viewers to your show. What do you think the broadcasts need to do to keep audiences interested?
It’s interesting, because I think what we are doing at the end of the day in this moment, in this era, is quite traditional. I recognize that people are bombarded all day long – from the moment the wake up, with their phones and the headlines and the tweets, and they check their emails throughout the day. They get bits and pieces of the news. At the end of the day, we have a responsibility to break through the noise, to cut through it all and essentially to say, ‘What’s the bottom line here? What do folks at home need to know about any given story?’ I think that in this era of a saturated media environment , if people are coming to you, we owe them more than ever to really deliver on that responsibility. I’m grateful the viewers seem to be responding, but with that comes an even greater responsibility to make sure at the end of the day, If they are taking time out of their incredibly hectic busy day, that we do what it is they expect of us.
How important do you think digital extensions are, and how have you and ABC worked to make “World News Tonight” more available in new formats?
I think it’s really important. I think as many places as you can find for content, as far as I’m concerned, that’s balanced, that’s careful, that benefit the viewer, and so I think what we try to do with a number of social media arms is put bits and pieces of the news in as many places as we can whether that be Facebook or Instagram or Hulu, where you can now see “World News Tonight.” I think it’s vital. …But people are also coming to us on TV despite the fact they have all these other avenues. While we are focused on how do we reach more people and in different ways, we also can’t take our eye off of the reality that people still come to us in a very traditional way. They are expecting a conversation at the end of the day.
You gained access into a heavily damaged Notre Dame Cathedral before anyone else. How did you make that happen?
Rarely is there a moment that really is universal or lands with everyone the same way. I thought this was one of those moments. It took my breath away. … If there were any way to get into the cathedral to show what has been salvaged and whether there’s hope that it could be resurrected, if you will, then I [wanted] to get in, and so we immediately and quietly began working on that. It was chilling. We walked in the back of the cathedral and the spire was still sitting there in the middle. They allowed us in and we had a lot more access than we expected, but there was awareness of where they would not allow us to walk, because of the giant craters in the roof above us. I will never forget there was a statue of the Virgin Mary that used to sit on a column in the front of the cathedral that had not been moved for centuries. It was on this pedestal and it was something that you looked up at in the cathedral. The French general who allowed us to look in took me to the back of the church and he said, “ I want you to see something.” We were looking into the eyes of the Virgin Mary and he says, “You are doing something people have not done for centuries. You are looking into the Virgin Mary’s eyes. She has never been at this level. She has always been on the column.”
You’ve made it a point to travel overseas frequently during your tenure. Why do you think viewers want to see the anchor get out from behind the desk?
Well, honestly, I hope that people recognize that’s sort of my DNA. I was a reporter for many years before I got a shot at what I am doing now. I think if I didn’t do that, people would say, “What happened to this guy?”
You do a lot of end segments for the broadcast that focus on little victories, Americana and moments of triumph. Do you think every half hour needs to end on a hopeful note?
There is a void right now, I think, and that void is the connective tissue in our country, what brings us together. I know from doing this job and from traveling around the country and doing these small town stories there’s a lot more than people have in common than what separates them. I think people are hungry for that despite the polarizing voices you hear at both ends of the spectrum that fill the vacuum. I think we have tried to in a quiet and steady way point out the fact that we all have a lot in common and we do care and it’s important that we respect everyone’s opinion, but recognize that people do care. They care about their neighbors. They care about the country. And we signal that at the end of every night. On the nights we don’t do that, people miss it and I hear about it.