In a year when all of entertainment was turned upside down, nobody saw it coming: The hottest property in daytime TV as America went on lockdown was a 62-year-old career politician holding court in Albany, N.Y.
On March 2, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo conducted a media briefing in an effort to spread vital news and information about the coronavirus outbreak that was just starting to be recognized as a massive public health threat. With fear across the country spiking, Cuomo’s briefing was carried live by New York’s local TV stations — and nationally on CNN and other news outlets.
That 12-minute introduction, part of a 34-minute session with other state leaders, was the first of 111 consecutive daily briefings for New Yorkers and the wider world about the grim progress of the worst pandemic to hit the U.S. in a century. Cuomo became the most unlikely TV star as he walked viewers through charts and graphs demonstrating the scope of the threat. Nobody was more surprised than the governor when he started generating social media shoutouts and pop culture buzz for his style and substance.
“Governor Cuomo doing a daily, live coronavirus briefing was must-see TV,” says Corin Nelson, a veteran talk show producer and native New Yorker who watched Cuomo’s sessions from her home in Los Angeles. “As a host, he made you feel informed, connected, protected and entertained — when we needed it most. His direct, no-bullshit, unfiltered and often charming delivery was so pitch-perfect that I found myself yelling, ‘Yes!’ at the TV.”
Cuomo connected with viewers because he instinctively did what a great talk show host must do — make it personal. He joked about his shortcomings as a divorced father when it came to making family meals. From the start, he spoke candidly and humbly about his own fears. He made references to his now-89-year-old mother, Matilda, and his adult daughters, Cara, Mariah and Michaela.
“Late last night my daughter called me, and I could hear in her voice that she was anxious. She had seen on the news that a person tested positive,” Cuomo said on March 2, with the accent and gesticulations befitting an Italian American political scion from Queens. “And my daughter said, ‘Don’t tell me to relax. Tell me why I should be relaxed.’ Which is a very big difference there.”
Within days, Cuomo was heralded as a leader who stepped up to the challenge of communicating in uncertain times. Over the course of his briefings, especially as the rates of infection and death spiked in March and April, he looked squarely at the cameras and the reporters in the room and told them the unvarnished truth — taming COVID-19 would be hard and painful. His command of government systems and public policy was evident as he detailed what the Empire State was doing to combat the virus and where the federal government was falling short. “Ventilators, ventilators, ventilators” became his rallying cry. “I will turn this state upside down to get the number of beds we need,” Cuomo assured those watching on March 24.
Cuomo’s sessions soon began running an hour or longer. The charts and graphs became more stylish and meme-friendly.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Cuomo’s emergence as a sex symbol, particularly after the curve of the state’s infection rate started to flatten. Chelsea Handler gushed about the gov in a column, “Dear Andrew Cuomo, I Want to Be Your First Lady,” penned for Vogue in late March.
“Thank you for your different outfits, your tight white polo shirts, your forceful language, and your clear, easy-to-read graphics that are probably meant as a learning manual for Donald Trump. I love your bar graphs and pie charts, Governor,” Handler wrote.
Nelson, head of Curly One Prods., whose credits include “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” “Chelsea Lately” and “The Sharon Osbourne Show,” says Cuomo struck the right tone to make viewers want to come back for their daily fix of feel-good TV even if the subject matter was decidedly feel-bad. Plus, he had the intangible “it” factor that came through the screen, much to Nelson’s surprise.
“He was so sexy. Come on, who doesn’t want a superhero with a New York accent to fight the bad guys and defend you?” Nelson says. “I wish he could be our president — or my personal president.”