ABC, best known for soapy programs like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19,” has in recent days been more focused on the drama of real life.
In the past few days, the Walt Disney-owned broadcast network has pushed back its flagship late-night program, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (currently in repeats due to a shutdown in production) to make room for “Nightline,” the venerable newsmagazine that held the 11:30 p.m. slot for decades. It has suspended production of a daytime talk show co-moderated by the popular Michael Strahan in favor of a 1p.m. hard-news update. And it pre-empted primetime fare once in favor of a pop-up broadcast of the newsmagazine “20/20” focused on matters at hand.
Many TV networks have recalibrated programming to accommodate intense interest in the coronavirus pandemic. For broadcast networks, which serve the broadest U.S. audiences possible, the tactic can be difficult to put into action. Viewers tune in to these outlets for general entertainment, along with helpings of sports and news.
“We quickly came to the decision that, essentially, we would stop the news division from doing anything that wasn’t related to breaking news or coverage of the coronavirus in all of its aspects,” says James Goldston, president of ABC News, in an interview. “Once we made that decision, everything else followed.” Discussions went on beyond the news division, he says, and grew to include Peter Rice, chairman of Walt Disney Television; Dana Walden, chairman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment; Karey Burke, president of ABC Entertainment; and even late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.
Disney declined to make any of those executives or Kimmel available for comment.
While the broadcast networks risk losing some viewers in search of more comforting content, they are also cognizant that they are vying for attention with cable-news outlets, where viewership has begun to soar. Consider that the average audience for the most-watched anchors on each of the three major cable-news outlets – Fox News’ Sean Hannity, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and CNN’s Chris Cuomo – rose approximately 25% to nearly 10.8 million on Thursday March 19, compared with more than 8.6 million two weeks earlier, on Thursday, March 5.
“We are already seeing early evidence that news could be the biggest share gainer during COVID-19 developments and the absence of sports,” says John Hodulik, a media-industry analyst with UBS, in a recent research note, making reference to the recent suspensions of the NBA and NHL seasons, as well as the delay of MLB’s Opening Day. “The segment was already benefiting from the political cycle but share gains have increased in recent weeks with cable news.”
Other broadcasters are starting to devote more time to the pandemic. NBC News on Thursday pre-empted primetime with a special report led by Lester Holt, and NBC devoted more than 90 minutes Saturday afternoon to a special report led by Alex Witt.
The first signs of ABC’s strategy cropped up two weeks ago, when ABC News turned a Friday-night broadcast of “20/20” on March 6 into a special report on the pandemic. Next, the unit announced “Nightline,” which has since the days of original anchor Ted Koppel moved to tackle several topics each evening, would return to the show’s original single-topic premise – all coronavirus coverage. Within days, the network made the decision to restore “Nightline” temporarily to the earlier roost it had kept until 2005. On Wednesday, ABC suspended production of “Strahan, Sara and Keke,” an early-afternoon talk-show extension of “Good Morning America” in favor of an hour-long news program anchored by Amy Robach. The team that produces ABC News’ live-streaming service also produces Robach’s hour.
The “Nightline” maneuver is telling. In 2013, the network pushed it back to air after midnight, with top Disney executives believing Kimmel’s show would bring in more ad revenue if it aired after the late local news. The decision was financially sound, but demoralized employees in the news division, which has fewer overall assets than larger competitors like AT&T’s CNN or Comcast’s NBCUniversal.
But giving more of a spotlight to “Nightline” now “was a natural thing to happen in these extraordinary circumstances,” says Goldston. “It made sense for everybody, including Jimmy Kimmel, who is also supportive of the idea.”
ABC News is tackling the coverage even as the spread of coronavirus has crimped its normal operations. The news division has disclosed that two of its staffers have tested positive for coronavirus, including correspondent Kaylee Hartung, as well as an employee associated with its Los Angeles bureau and who had been covering the outbreak in Washington state. Goldston says he estimates only one out of ten ABC News employees who normally come to the office are there. The rest are working from remote locations.
ABC is “likely” to consider other pre-emptions like the “20/20” shows, the executive says, but no one is currently envisioning that the programming switches will be permanent. Of course., “Nightline” was born out of ABC’s decision to update viewers on the Iranian hostage crisis late in the evening, and it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that viewers latch on to a concept that gives them some comfort in a moment of crisis.
At present, says Goldston, “I don’t think that’s our anticipation.”