The duo has for the past 13 weeks co-anchored a Thursday-night “town hall” that tackles a wide range of issues sparked by the coronavirus spread. But where their “Coronavirus: Facts and Fears” was once a novelty, seen as part of a wave of quick-response programming tactics by the nation’s TV-news outlets, it is now an entrenched part of the CNN weekly schedule.
“My sense is that as long as the trajectory of this story continues, we will continue to do these,” says Charlie Moore, executive producer of the program as well as Cooper’s regular 8 p.m. show, “Anderson Cooper 360” in an interview. “I certainly don’t have any notion from Jeff [Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide] or Michael [Bass, CNN’s executive vice president of programming] or anyone like that saying there is a date when we are stopping these.” Of course, news can intervene: CNN is slated this evening to take one of the hours devoted to the town hall and devote it to coverage of protests in Minneapolis over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.
Both hosts say they are simply pursuing a story until it ends. “There was no set plan for this thing to last ‘x’ number of weeks,” says Cooper. “I don’t think any of us anticipated this.
Many of the nation’s TV-news outlets have tested new programs and schedule changes to cover the pandemic. Several have launched town halls and specials. NBC even ran one in broadcast primetime for number of weeks, dispatching Lester Holt, Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie to anchor it. But CNN is the only one that has sustained one in primetime week after week. To do so, the cable-news outlet has wrapped disparate elements into a single two-hour programming package while still offering a few surprises.
“That has not been easy to do, but we have been able to appeal to a broader array of viewers,” says Gupta. CNN says two of the town-hall broadcasts rank among the five most-watched editions of a cable-news town hall not tied to election coverage. The program typically ranks second in its time slot among viewers between 25 and 54, the demographic most important to advertisers in news programming.
Giving viewers a chance to ask experts questions about health and behavior is essential to the show’s appeal. But by the time two-hour showcase comes to an end, it has usually branched out into different topics, along with visits from guests one might not expect to see.
Some hail from the worlds of global policy or politics, but others come from the sports sector or even the arts. Spike Lee and Alicia Keys have made appearances during the town halls, as has Rob Manfred, the Major League Baseball Commissioner. First Lady Melania Trump delivered a pre-recorded message to viewers last week. Gupta has been tracking participants in vaccine trials, so viewers can check on progress. Tarji P. Henson is slated to appear to discuss mental health among African-Americans. During one recent broadcast, Cooper revealed publicly for the first time that he had a son -a personal revelation disclosed to an extremely broad audience.
Cooper says the town hall could not have offered a more appropriate moment for him to make the announcement. “Even in the midst of a situation like this, even in the midst of where the world is today, there’s new life to be had, and that’s something I’ve witnessed this year with the death of my mother and the birth of my son,” Cooper says. “I think it’s part of what we cover.”
Yet Gupta and Cooper never fail to open with a catch-up on the latest developments and with an hour of segments in which questions can be answered. Gupta says he knows this is important to viewers because his own email is clogged with thousands of queries about the disease and how to deal with it.
“People want to get answers to questions about how to live their lives,” he says. “There is a lot of news about kids. There are a lot of questions about summer camp. Some of them get really specific, from ‘What is the right kind of mask to wear?’ to ‘What is the safest way to go shopping?’”
CNN has tried to steer the town hall away from politics, but it still intervenes. Producers try each week to book a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force and have done so with much success. But for at least one week, no one appeared.
The show wants to hear from experts, says Cooper, not from politicians. “We try as much as possible – it’s not always possible – to stay away from the political side of this, because we do want to get as many people to watch to get the information. We are just really trying to stick with that.” Staying “out of the red and the blue piece of it” is a guiding principle, says Moore.
The town hall recently came under scrutiny on social media for producers’ decision to book Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist. A promo with her face and name on it was interpreted to mean that CNN was going to make her part of a panel about the pandemic, when she had been booked for a one-on-one segment to discuss her experience in Sweden as well as a decision to donate a $100,000 prize she had won to UNICEF.
“I found it bizarre,” says Cooper, of the social-media furor. But the cascade of sentiment online was enough to prompt him to address the matter during that week’s show. Even so, he says, “the program was no different than the program we had done every week.”
CNN has also used the town hall to offer longer-than-normal segments when warranted, including a 45-minute conversation with philanthropist and former Microsoft chief Bill Gates. Gupta says he appreciates the chance to do in-depth “explainers” about how to navigate the world during this time. One recent segment showed him making his way through an airport to the interior of a plane, where he offered tips on how to try to avoid contracting the virus (use the air blower above your seat to break up the air in front of your face).
Viewers can expect more in weeks to come. Cooper and Gupta have moved from anchoring the programming front of a sparse audience to holding forth in front of robotic cameras, but they expect to keep showing up. Whether they will be doing so in a year’s time is unclear, says Moore, but for now, “I’m sort of just marking my calendar.”