The two hosts of “20/20” have been instrumental in an intriguing experiment the Walt Disney network has been conducting with the 40-year-old news-magazine. For several weeks, ABC has run versions of the show that are two hours long and have fewer of the trappings usually associated with the format. Gone for the most part are voice-overs from the anchors, who instead are seen interviewing people integral to the week’s tale. The logo of the show is still displayed in the corner of the screen, but more prominence is given to the specific title of the week’s episode.
Recent “20/20” broadcasts have tackled stories about the infamous Bobbitt slashing, actor Robert Blake and televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. “We have made it feel less like a news magazine and more like a documentary or movie, with all the appropriate moodiness, atmospherics, character development and structure,” says David Sloan, senior executive producer at “20/20,” in an interview. ”What we have been seeing, in both broadcast and streaming, is that people are looking for bigger experiences.”
The super-sized versions of “20/20” began running in early January. After an eight-week stint, ABC has extended their time on air to mid-April, says Beth Hoppe, senior vice president for long-form programming at ABC News. Since debuting the longer shows, the news-magazine has seen increases in the audience most coveted by advertisers in news programming, people between 25 and 54, as well as in overall viewership.
ABC News isn’t the only outlet to try the occasional longer-form news-magazine. NBC’s “Dateline” has featured many two-hour broadcasts, 115 since 2013., as has CBS News’ “48 Hours.” But ABC News executives have some hope of making their documentary-style “20/20” something that appears more frequently (much of that will likely depend on the network’s overall schedule and Friday-night needs).
Not too long ago, executives at ABC News were concerned about losing time on the schedule, not gaining it. In 2013, the news unit’s venerable “Nightline,” compressed to half an hour from 60 minutes in 1983, was dispatched to 12:35 a.m. to make room for late-night’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” prompting no small amount of internal hand-wringing. In recent months, however, ABC’s news division has added hours to its portfolio, which now encompasses “The View” as well as a new early-afternoon program led by Michael Strahan and Sara Haines.
“News and non-fiction are never more essential to the national discourse,” says James Goldston, president of ABC News. “There is a realization that, especially these days, truth is often stranger than fiction.”
Indeed, many TV-news outlets are expanding their content palette. At MSNBC, Rachel Maddow has tested a seven-episode podcast looking back at former vice president Spiro Agnew. Fox News Channel has launched a variety of historical documentary programs on its Fox Nation streaming service. CBS News has started a morning program aimed specifically at broadband audiences. ABC News is also in the mix, starting one podcast that examines the current Mueller investigation and another focused on faith hosted by Paula Faris.
They do so as documentary programming has thrived elsewhere. Executives at CNN have in recent years started going to the Sundance Film Festival to try to acquire or invest in interesting projects. And documentary projects on HBO and Showtime – they run the gamut from “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” to “History of the Eagles” – have generated significant chatter in popular culture.
Launching another news-magazine, however, has proven a challenging task across the industry. The TV schedule has featured any number of new options in the genre that could not be sustained, whether they be NBC’s “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” and “Rock Center,” Fox’s “The Pulse” on Fox or CBS’ “West 57th.”
Executives had mulled the “20/20” tweaks since last summer, says Hoppe, who joined the company from PBS in February of last year and has been known for her touch with marketing and managing documentary programming. Research had shown viewers would hang on during longer stories if they could be made compelling enough, such as a news special on Tonya Harding. So producers started looking for stories that could sustain 11 segment,s said Hoppe, and offer enough cliffhangers to keep viewers on board through all of them
Anchors aren’t utilized in the traditional manner in these longer-form presentations. “They are embedded , but they are not really presenting the story,” says Sloan. “They are characters themselves” who are seen interviewing principals, but not really talking directly to the audience, “The old approach is ‘This is what you need to know,’ and this approach is more like ‘Let me tell you what I’ve discovered. Let me tell you what I’ve learned.’ It’s a whole different paradigm shift.”