NBC News will kick off a new show next week that’s scheduled to appear for the next three Tuesdays. But there is some sense among executives that it could keep going for weeks.
The new one-hour “‘NBC News Special Report: Coronavirus Pandemic” will air across NBC, MSNBC and the live-streaming outlet NBC News Now starting March 31 at 10 p.m., taking over a time slot normally reserved for primetime dramas like “New Amsterdam.” Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie will anchor the show in its first week, and Lester Holt is also expected to anchor the series as it continues.
And while NBC News has produced all kinds of special programs over the years, there is little precedent for a report such as this. “There is no playbook” for covering a pandemic that has already changed life in the United States in many ways, says Rashida Jones, senior vice president of specials for NBC News and MSNBC, in an interview.
The special report launches in earnest as many TV-news outlets are testing new ways to provide information to people who are desperate for it in a moment of global crisis. CNN has for the last several Thursdays aired “town halls” led by Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. ABC News has, at least for the moment, moved its “Nightline” back to its original slot after late local news for the first time since 2013, and replaced a daytime talk show led by Michael Strahan, Sara Haines and Keke Palmer with an afternoon news update from Amy Robach. Fox News Channel has dispatched daytime anchor Harris Faulkner to a reformatted hour spent having doctors answer viewers’ questions.
“Special Report” launches as TV networks have seen viewership surges for news programming of all sorts as a result of the intense coronavirus news cycle. Even the venerable evening news, which has over the decades shed some of its audience due to different consumption habits of rising generations, is seeing viewership levels on par with some primetime programming.
NBC’s new effort has its roots in a Thursday-night special report broadcast across the various outlets on March 10. On that program, Holt led an hour-long show that let viewers interact with experts and correspondents and get their questions about coronavirus answered. Producers had to stay on their toes. With just six minutes to go before air time, Jones says, California announced new restrictions for residents, a move that meant re-doing the top of the show with just seconds to spare.
“We all have an appreciation for how tricky this is,” says Holt, in an interview. Indeed, many NBC News personnel – including the “NBC Nightly News” anchor – are working from home, just like many other Americans hoping to stem the spread of the contagion.
The special report is built to turn at the flash of a new headline. “It’s a bit less structured in some aspects than a typical ‘Nightly’ newscast. We’ve got significantly more real estate to deal with. We can be more conversational with our interplay with our correspondents and experts,” says Holt. “It’s really kind of built in real time” because “we want the broadcast to be flexible enough to go where the story happens to be leading us at that moment.”
During the programs, viewers can submit questions to NBC News personnel including NBC and MSNBC correspondent Dr. John Torres, and NBC News and MSNBC contributor Dr. Joseph Fair, NBC News correspondent Vicky Nguyen and NBC News senior business correspondent Stephanie Ruhle. Jones says the reports will also seek to get new details from key newsmakers.
There will also be an effort to give viewers a reason for hope and optimistic thinking, Jones says. ”We will also spend some time trying t find moments of comfort,” says the executive. “With isolation and everyone being separated, we want to make sure we are not just doing all gloom and doom.”
Though the show is only scheduled for the next three weeks, Jones says NBC News is willing to keep it on air “for as long as there is a need, for as long as this continues to be relevant and people continue to engage. That will determine how long we do it.”