Every Friday evening, Steve Hartman takes “CBS Evening News” viewers “On The Road,” in an end-of-show segment that was originally devised by the legendary Charles Kuralt that has the correspondent journey around the country. These days, Hartman can’t even get out his front door.
The spread of the coronavirus pandemic means travel is limited, even for CBS News personnel. So Hartman, who has been delivering the heartwarming vignettes about life in the United States since 2011, has had to adapt. For one of his most recent stories, about a man and a woman in New York City who went out on a date while social distancing, he relied on interviews conducted via Zoom and some video shot by the subjects of the story. “We’d normally never do that,” he says. “But desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Tens of thousands of viewers who typically would not have time to incorporate Hartman’s Friday-night tales into their routine are now hunkered down at home and watching them regularly, as well as reports on the other evening news programs — ABC’s “World News Tonight” and NBC’s “Nightly News.” Between March 16 and April 7, about 31 million people tuned in to watch one of the three broadcast network evening shows, according to Nielsen, a massive jump of 42% from the 21.9 million who watched during the same period a year ago. Viewership is also up at PBS’ “NewsHour,” says Sara Just, the show’s executive producer, with audiences for the linear broadcast up around 34%. “We are seeing a surge.”
At a time when the nation could really use a news figure like Walter Cronkite, his heirs are commanding the sort of attention that evening news hasn’t seen in at least a generation.
“I think it’s more than a blip,” says Andrew Heyward, the former CBS News president, who is overseeing a research project that studies innovation in local news at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. As the news grows more threatening and complex, he says, even younger viewers crave someone to help make sense of it all. These days, they are relying on ABC’s David Muir, NBC’s Lester Holt, CBS’ Norah O’Donnell and PBS’ Judy Woodruff to keep them informed — and maybe even calm. Indeed, NBC News has been working on a “Nightly News Kids Edition” for streaming on YouTube. Holt will anchor an initial episode that could run as early as this week, according to a person familiar with the matter.
For the anchors and the news machines around them, however, life is far from that. The business of evening news is going through an unexpected — and turbocharged — change. Suddenly, the three broadcast network shows are among the most-watched programs on traditional TV, with more viewers than some scripted primetime mainstays. And though no one is under the illusion that audience levels will continue to be elevated upon a return to life as normal, the newscasts are operating as though ordinary will remain beyond the nation’s grasp for quite some time.
“I think the surge of nightly news viewership is largely an anomaly based on the crisis we’re in, but it’s an anomaly that’s likely to continue for many months, given the probable duration of the pandemic,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Part of the appeal of the evening news has long been that it largely remains the same, night after night. In these times, however, viewers can’t help noticing changes — some of them aimed at keeping the audience interested, others mandated by the sad necessities of the contagion. Producers and writers have been sent away from headquarters, and correspondents often beam in via broadband. Holt is anchoring “NBC Nightly News” from a home office and posting videos on Instagram. He thinks viewers will forgive the occasional pixelated video or delayed audio cue, even as he embraces light technical duties. “Forty years into this, I’ve picked up a few things,” he says. “I can flick some lights and switches.” All of the programs have typically covered national affairs, foreign developments, business and human-interest stories. Now they’ve become digests centered on the latest in the pandemic, which has created stories about public safety, health, finance and culture. “We haven’t chased a single-topic story like this since 9/11, and even that was limited in scope to terrorism,” says Jay Shaylor, executive producer of “CBS Evening News.”
Behind the scenes, the differences in getting the shows on the air are starker. Muir, who can often be found before a broadcast doing last-minute edits on a story or reworking copy with colleagues, now travels right from his home to a near-empty “World News Tonight” set, and works from there for the rest of his day at ABC News. “I miss them,” he says of his co-workers. “I miss that collective energy.” At the “NewsHour,” 100 staffers used to put the show on the air from a central studio, says Just. Now most are at home, with just 17 on set. “We have had to make dramatic changes,” she says. “This is by far the most challenging TV production situation I’ve ever faced in my career.”
In an era when cable news outlets deliver up-to-the-minute blasts about every trending story of the moment, the evening news crews think they have a more valuable function: telling viewers what’s fact versus fiction and giving them a sense of life proceeding apace. “I do believe we play some small role in helping to reduce the anxiety in America,” says Muir. All of the shows try to give viewers a feeling of optimism by show’s end, as with segments like “On the Road” or ABC News’ “America Strong.” NBC News has added segments to “Nightly” like “On the Front Lines,” which relays stories about doctors and nurses and can sometimes prove inspirational.
Even as a call for public service abounds, however, the shows are continuing to battle for viewers. Before the pandemic, ABC’s “World News Tonight” had become the nation’s most-watched evening newscast, and Muir’s ability to add viewers during his tenure has sometimes made the program as big a draw on certain nights as some of ABC’s primetime series. The show continues to jockey with its NBC rival for dominance over the viewers that matter most to advertisers — people between 25 and 54. Season to date, “World News Tonight”has led in that category. And CBS last year moved its evening news program to Washington, D.C., in hopes of gaining an edge by having anchor O’Donnell in close proximity to national lawmakers during the run-up to the 2020 election.
In recent days, the networks have tested new ways of getting their 6:30 p.m. newscasts in front of audiences. NBC for several weeks has run updated re-airs of Holt’s “Nightly” on a handful of its local stations at 7:30 p.m., a move that has filled a slot often reserved for “Access Hollywood.” Meanwhile, ABC during the week of March 30 put Muir back on the air for a second live “World News” at 7:30 p.m. that aired on seven major-market stations, including New York and Los Angeles. CBS has also adopted the approach by re-airing “CBS Evening News” at 4 a.m. on certain stations.
Executives say the additional airings are spurred less by the chase for ratings — though it’s clear they help goose audience numbers — than out of a desire to help viewers and colleagues. “It’s not part of some strategic plan,” says Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News. “What the news division has said to the rest of the company is we will fill any need you have with news programming because, obviously, we are covering this 24/7.” After its first expanded 7:30 run, ABC News has not done another, but “we will be there if the story requires it,” says Almin Karamehmedovic, executive producer of “World News Tonight,” adding: “We are willing and able to do more and expand the delivery of news.”
And the spike in interest is spurring experimentation. CBS has accelerated the use of a new kind of interview segment for the format. O’Donnell is on most nights holding in-studio conversations with newsmakers, who have in recent days ranged from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci to Mark Esper, the U.S. secretary of defense. “A lot of these are based on relationships that I have had for a long time,” says O’Donnell. “They know that we are interested, that we are making an effort to provide understanding and share facts.” The interviews bring something different to the programs, which usually position the anchor as a curator of sorts, says Shaylor, and add a real-time element to the proceedings. “It’s way beyond the traditional evening news anchor role,” he says.
At some point the pandemic will recede, but anchors and producers believe their newscasts could keep generating some level of heightened demand. There will be economic consequences to cover, a presidential election — and ongoing medical concerns. People may have to stay close to home for a time and may not want to venture out even if they can.
Coronavirus-related coverage could remain central to the evening news for a while, insiders believe. “This is a deep dive for all of us into science, medicine, hard facts and public health,” says O’Donnell, who believes such coverage should continue. Holt worries that the tragic nature of this era may spur other format changes. “As this story potentially becomes more grim, we are going to have to look at our tone,” he says.
Indeed, there is an expectation that what becomes the norm during the pandemic could become part of the shows whenever they emerge from the crisis. “I can’t imagine this stuff doesn’t change all of us to a certain degree,” says “NewsHour” producer Just. “Some of this, I imagine, is going to have lasting consequences.”