The March 15 episode of documentary-news series “Axios” on HBO featured an interview with congressman James Clyburn that was notable not just for its newsiness — the South Carolina Democrat likened Republicans’ relationship with President Trump to that of Germans with Adolf Hitler — but also for its intimacy. Clyburn and Axios CEO Jim VandeHei demonstrated a rapport as they sat on the same side of a conference table in the news organization’s office, facing one another, discussing the Democratic primary and political landscape. When the interview ended, they shook hands.
It was a stark contrast to the lead interview on “Axios” a week later. Sunday night’s episode kicked off with reporter Jonathan Swan interviewing China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai about the novel coronavirus. The occasionally combative exchange took place via Zoom, the videoconference software that has become a sudden staple of many U.S. businesses that have shifted to a work-from-home strategy in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“When you’re in person, you can connect with the subject in a different way,” Swan tells Variety. “You can use moments in a different way. What I was worried about going into the interview on Zoom was that, if I asked the uncomfortable question, as I did a number of times, they have control.” In a remote, Swan says, it’s easy for a subject to dodge questions by citing technical issues, or even just walk away. In person, “It sounds bad, but they’re sort of captive once the cameras are rolling and the interview is happening.”
In its three seasons, “Axios” has established a format that blends snackable reported documentary pieces and juicy newsmaker interviews along the lines of the Clyburn chat. But the rapid shutdown of large sectors of the U.S. economy and disruption to day-to-day life in many parts of the country that the pandemic prompted in the last two weeks forced a rethinking of that approach.
That was in part because the coronavirus has taken over all aspects of the news cycle — and in part because the pandemic has forced changes to the production of “Axios” just as it has to the operations of so many other businesses. Sunday’s episode was devoted to almost entirely to remote interviews with Cui, Sen. Ted Cruz, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold W. Donald, all discussing the response to and effects of the pandemic.
“There were some fairly radical changes, both in terms of production, and especially in terms of post production, which I’m sure is true around the entire industry,” says Matt O’Neill, who serves with partner Perri Peltz as producer and director on the series. “But we’re set up as a docu-news series — not like an NBC News newsroom or a one of those players. With our partners at Axios and at HBO, we were all committed first and foremost to trying to tell these stories in a way that kept our team and the people we’re talking to safe.”
The result is a show that feels in many ways more urgent than previous installments, with the videoconferences underscoring the impact of the topic at hand. It also delivers moments that are unquestionably good television — such as when Cruz, who often comes across in interviews like the bad guy in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, jokes warmly with Axios co-founder Mike Allen about the angle of a lampshade behind him, or the camera reveals that the reporter interviewing Nadella is doing so with the help of a Macbook Pro.
But there is also an element of risk. In an extended version of his interview posted online, Cui appears at one point to intimate that he may cut the interview short if Swan continues on a line of questioning about the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. But the upside to the videoconferencing, given the present reality, is obvious. O’Neill admits that the Chinese embassy initially wanted to cancel the interview, long in the works, over safety concerns, but agreed to move ahead once the producer suggested a remote.
“It seemed to us that the vast majority of people were more interested in communicating during this very complicated, challenging time, than they were concerned about the look,” says Peltz. “We really didn’t get any pushback of note about doing these interviews in the way that we did them.”
With the rate of new confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States continue to increase, this new approach will likely continue in upcoming episodes. O’Neill and Peltz note that their process has been utterly transformed — though it should become more refined after an intense period in which making sure that producers, editors, and other members of the roughly 45-person team were set up to properly send and receive high-quality media was as high a priority as anything else.
Axios’ journalism organization has also had to make changes, with the company’s staff of 180 now all working from home.
“I don’t know when things will go back to normal,” Swan says. For him, the difficulty ahead might not be in conducting interviews remotely, but in the day-to-day grind of source-building and gathering reporting. “You get so much more information out of the person when you’re sitting across the table from them than you do on the phone or texting. So I find it very challenging. I don’t really have a good answer for it yet.”