Just as the March 18 edition of “CBS This Morning” ended at 9 a.m. ET, executive producer Diana Miller was informed that the show’s studio was about to be shut down for the second time in a week because of the threat of exposure to the coronavirus.
As Miller’s team scrambled to find other studio options for the rest of the week, they quickly eyed the Ed Sullivan Theater down the road from the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street.
The space’s usual occupant, “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” was shut down, like dozens of other entertainment programs that went dark last week as the public health crisis intensified. As a news program, “CBS This Morning” qualifies as an essential service, compared to Colbert’s late-night variety hour that typically includes a live studio audience.
CBS News president Susan Zirinsky reached out to Chris Licht, “Late Show” executive producer and also a CBS News veteran who launched the current iteration of the network’s morning show in early 2012. Soon “CTM” technicians and crew members were making a beeline for the Sullivan theater at Broadway and 56th Street.
“We did it in less than a 24 hour turnaround,” Miller told Variety. “It’s the third time we’ve moved in a week.”
The two-hour live show delivered the following morning, March 19, was compelling, seat-of-the-pants broadcast news that perfectly reflected these unsettled times. Anchors Gayle King, Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil rose to the occasion, demonstrating their professionalism as they steered the ship from an unfamiliar wheelhouse.
The Preparation of the “Late Show” set, with its many giant LED screens, was complicated by the fact that access to the CBS Broadcast Center was restricted after another staffer tested positive for the highly contagious COVID-19 virus that threatens to overwhelm the U.S. health care system.
“I couldn’t even promise them teleprompters at first,” Miller said of the “CTM” anchor trio. “They’re so flexible. It’s so clear that they want to be on the air. They’re incredibly resilient, positive and curious. They are the face of the operation and they are good at keeping us all calm.”
King addressed the studio switch at the top of the March 19 show, telling viewers that their regular home on 57th Street was once again closed “out of an abundance of caution.”
“We want to be very careful,” King told viewers. “We are taking this very seriously as I know you are too.”
The disruption to standard TV news production processes all over town have amounted to a throwback to an earlier TV era when communication between anchors, correspondents in the field and producers weren’t as seamless as they usually are today. At one point on March 19, as Mason tossed to a commercial break, he sought to give the exact time but had to look around sheepishly and ask with a laugh, “Where’s the clock?”
Miller credited the anchors for their skill at communicating with the production staff through their on-air comments. Everybody is scrambling to keep up with the heightened pace of the coronavirus news cycle, and it’s harder to do without all of their usual tech tools at hand.
“There’s a lot less capacity for [in-ear communication]. Everyone is plugged in to their phones at all times. “There’s been a lot of texting and old-fashioned phone calls,” he said.
The “CTM” team, like their colleagues at news outlets all over the world, have been working round the clock under extremely challenging conditions. They’re tasked with covering the biggest story in years with a skeleton crew in the studio and crucial production staffers working from home in accordance with state and federal social distancing guidelines. The show has included interview segments done by streaming video conference calls, including King’s one-on-one with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, as well as regular reports delivered from the Manhattan apartment of CBSN anchor Vladimir Duthiers.
The show’s three primary medical contributors — Dr. David Agus, Dr. Jonathan LaPook and Dr. Tara Narula — have been working overtime to help provide in-depth reporting on the story. “CTM” began devoting its full second hour to coronavirus coverage during the week of March 2. That focus helped them be better equipped with information and expertise as the crisis accelerated, Miller said.
“We’re really trying to keep the panic level at a minimum and feed people the facts as much as we can,” Miller said. “We’re taking the lead from our reporters and our doctors who have been incredible.”
Narula in particular has focused on the danger to health care workers amid a shortage of protective gear and key supplies.
“We are going to stay on that angle of how this affects the first-responders who have to choose between their jobs and their families,” Miller said.
“CTM” has also sought to leaven the hard news with a steady supply of feel-good segments highlighting moments of kindness and generosity demonstrated by everyday people.
“We’re seeing a new level of humanity out there that is touching,” Miller said. “As much as we are sharing the details and the facts about this crisis we are trying to show that people are balancing their lives with hope and by making connections they didn’t have before. It’s our job to show this.”
After “CTM” was moved out of CBS Broadcast Center the first time last week, the show turned to CBS News bureaus in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and London for help with editing segments and for technical support that they couldn’t easily replicate.
On March 12 and March 13, “CTM” originated from a set at CBS’ Washington, D.C. bureau. The show returned to West 57th Street from March 16-18 before moving to the Sullivan Theater.
Outfitting the “Late Show” set was trickier than moving into a different CBS News facility because the Sullivan Theater’s control room is not ideal for the needs of a live newscast, while the on-stage technical elements were more elaborate. To help fill the wider shiny-floor space, the “CTM” team grabbed the large oblong-shaped desk used by anchors Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King at the Feb. 25 Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina. The extra wide berth allows anchors and guests to sit at least six feet apart per social distancing guidelines.
“CTM’s” standard opening feature is its “Eye-Opener,” a 90-second quick-cut reel of the biggest news stories from the previous 24 hours. Miller wasn’t sure the segment would be produced for the March 19 edition because of editing difficulties.
“Right up until we aired I was not sure if we were going to have the Eye-Opener,” she said. “The team knew it was a priority because you never want to lose that opening. When it ran I breathed a sigh of relief.”
Having reports come from homes of correspondents is a responsible way to model social distancing techniques for viewers. If the intros and outros are a little more ragged than usual, so be it.
“It’s very real to viewers’ experiences at home,” Miller said. “They’re able to see that Vlad’s working from home. We had [correspondent] Meg Oliver in her kitchen while her kids were being home schooled. Our approach is to make sure that we’re getting the best interviews. If it looks a little fuzzier or not framed the way a professional camera operator would — that’s the new normal.”
The enormity of covering the global response to the coronavirus outbreak has given the “CTM” staff a strong sense of urgency and mission, even as the stepped-up pace of work has been overwhelming and exhausting, Miller said.
“Sometimes you’re covering things that only appeal to slices of the population,” Miller said. “We’re hearing from so many people and finding so many angles and tips to follow. It’s rare that you have an entire news organization working on a single topic and its many facets. This has strengthened us as an organization.”
(Pictured top: Anthony Mason, Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil anchor the March 19 edition of “CBS This Morning” from the Ed Sullivan Theater)