When Joe Biden and Donald Trump meet for their first presidential debate in 2020, a lot of TV news executives are betting it might look like something from 1960.
That was the year Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy squared off in various TV studios without a live audience to gasp, boo or cheer after each candidate’s utterances. And while there has been no official pronunciation on the format for this year’s presidential and vice-presidential debates, in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, TV networks are not-so-quietly preparing for similar events that will be of great importance to the American public but lack much of the pomp and circumstance normally accorded them.
“We still look back at that moment as being a turning point in that election,” says Bret Baier, the chief political anchor at Fox News. Now, he and many other TV news anchors and producers are likely to spend much of their time until Election Day working on strategies to mine similar gravitas from a bevy of big news telecasts — conventions, debates and 2020 election night — that won’t come packaged with the flashier elements modern audiences expect. “We know what the schedule of events is. We know that there are conventions coming up. We know where they are. We know how many days they are. We know we’ll be covering them,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington Bureau chief. “We just don’t know what they are going to look like.”
Many of the usual “Road to 2020” trappings can’t be produced under pandemic conditions. There will likely be no on-the-ground post-shows from the cities where the Republican and Democratic national conventions were slated to be held. There will probably be no “spin room” encounters after debates, and fewer visits to voters in small-town diners. Viewers will not see a network’s four or five best-known anchors huddled closely around a small table on election night trying to suss out the polls. Nikole Killion, a CBS News correspondent, would normally expect to do a story on the money flowing into the convention cities. “It would be like the Olympics for them,” she says. Not this year.
Indeed, due to several factors, viewers may walk away from election coverage not immediately knowing who won the race. “I think business as usual is out the window for the rest of the year,” says Rashida Jones, the senior vice president of NBC News and MSNBC who oversees coverage of special events for those outlets.
The news networks are gearing up for some of the most important coverage they will ever produce at a time when their efforts are of increasing significance to a media sector weakened by the effects of the coronavirus. In 2020, news is about the only thing U.S. media companies are sure they can deliver and produce on a regular basis. The pandemic has scuttled most scripted programming, and while media executives have recently touted a return to production, how much of it shows up on TV schedules remains anyone’s guess. Sports leagues have gotten back on the field, but executives remain nervous about whether the pandemic may keep athletes — even whole teams — from taking part.
Despite a severe downturn in advertising in recent months, the news networks continue to deliver. National TV advertising fell 9% in June, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending, but ad revenue soared a whopping 86% at CNN, 55% at Fox News Channel and 10% at MSNBC. After predicting ad revenue shortfalls earlier this year at all three U.S. cable news outlets for 2020, market-research firm Kagan, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, is now projecting an 8.2% hike for Fox News Channel to about $1.16 billion, and a 5% increase at CNN to about $608 million. MSNBC’s ad revenue is projected to fall 3% to $601 million.
“Fox News ratings have been astronomical,” said Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch on a recent call with investors. “We are monetizing them very well.”
Costs of news coverage for these seminal events, however, are likely to drop significantly. Consider the savings from the conventions alone: “It’s a planning process that would start in earnest well over a year before. It’s a massive infrastructure build,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication and a former head of special events coverage at NBC News. “They have to pay tremendous fees for all the craft workers, carpenters, freight haulers. It’s really among the biggest productions at NBC News next to the Olympics.”
Journalists say the stakes are already high for coverage, and they need to focus on what they believe is the biggest confluence of major stories in a lifetime. Current conditions make news gathering more complex. At CBS News, political correspondent Ed O’Keefe typically uses the conventions to build sourcing. “It’s a great opportunity to catch up with mayors and governors and members of Congress and state legislators,” he says. “You lose that. We have to get back to the basics, pick up the phone and find people and get them to give us information. It’s not as easy as it might be if you were out on the campaign every day with people who work for the candidates. You could cultivate and even get them to give you information — and they certainly are not as close to the candidates and the decision-makers as they might otherwise be.”
Those efforts may be undermined by uncertainty. Plans were in place to cover former Vice President Biden’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination at the convention in Milwaukee beginning Aug. 17 — but the party just last week scrapped in-person speeches, and Biden said he won’t attend the event. Now the networks must reset logistics and try to figure out which convention moments will be of broader interest to the public. “We are trying to do in two weeks what was set in stone for the better part of the year,” says Marc Burstein, the veteran ABC News senior executive producer who is in charge of that outlet’s special events coverage. And plans may continue to shift.
NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell has been covering conventions for years, and suspects some of the excitement will be hard to replicate. The networks typically hold rehearsals in the convention arenas and have correspondents rush “from Alaska to Florida,” she says. “The audiences are so attuned to slickly produced television,” and she’s not sure what they will make of efforts in 2020.
Viewers, however, are likely to tune in no matter what happens. “I think there is more interest in politics than I have historically seen, in the sense of the dynamics in the events changing each day,” says Cherie Grzech, vice president of politics and the Washington Bureau at Fox News. Candidates’ policies and decisions are no longer just talking points, she says. “It has become very, very important to everyday life.”
Already there has been a test run of a big political event taking place without the usual fanfare. In March, a debate between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders that CNN had intended to televise at a site in Arizona was pulled back to a TV studio in Washington, D.C. “There was no audience, but our coverage was still the same,” says CNN’s Feist. “The candidates will still have their important role to play.”
The networks will make other shifts as well. NBC News, CNN and CBS News are among those placing new emphasis on coverage of voting, given the likelihood that more of it may be conducted via mail. CNN’s Abby Phillip and CBS’ Major Garrett are among the reporters taking up the beat. The TV-news outlets are likely to dive more deeply into polling data, trying to suss out which way states and counties will lean, says Baier.
TV news outlets have seemingly been on overdrive since the 2016 election, and there’s little sense of letup. “This is not anything that I’m scared of,” says ABC’s Burstein. “We will adapt to this just fine, but it’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of scrambling going on.”