NBC News and ABC News regularly feud in the morning and fight in the early evening. Now they are taking their scorched-earth battle for news viewers to primetime.
Little love is lost between the two news divisions, one an integral and massive part of the Comcast media empire, and the other, smaller rival an instrumental piece of Walt Disney. NBC News and ABC News jockey each day to win bigger crowds for big A.M. mainstays like “Today” and “Good Morning America,” and for venerable evening newscasts like “NBC Nightly News” and “World News Tonight.” Nothing may put their struggle into sharper relief, however, than the two competitors’ decisions to hold dueling town halls with the presidential candidates.
ABC last week staked out ground for a town hall with Democrat Joe Biden. With President Trump refusing to take part in a “virtual” second event organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, Biden moved to ABC News for a broadcast slated to take place at 8 p.m. Thursday. NBC News this morning countered the maneuver by confirming it would host a similar event with Trump at the same time – and broadcast it not only on NBC, but on MSNBC and CNBC as well. The NBC event will last an hour, while ABC has said its town hall will encompass 90 minutes of questions and another half hour of analysis. The NBC broadcast will also be available on demand subsequently on the company’s streaming-video hub, Peacock, but NBC’s move drew criticism Wednesday morning from an array of journalism-industry observers, citing the inevitable result of dueling town halls: split public attention.
Even the two networks’ choice of moderators puts an accent on their long-simmering contretemps. George Stephanopoulos, a critical part of “Good Morning America,” will manage the on-air proceedings for ABC’s Biden event, while Savannah Guthrie, the co-anchor of “Today” will keep things together at the Trump event for NBC. The broadcasts of those programs the morning after will no doubt feature the anchors offering up their first remarks on how they interacted with the candidates – another way to draw audiences to one network or the other.
News was once seen as secondary to the business of airing primetime dramas and comedies, but as more viewers migrate to streaming services for video entertainment, live, as-it-happens programming is increasingly what draws big audiences to screens in linear fashion. There’s a reason why ABC and NBC have begun ceding more of their primetime schedules to “20/20” specials and pop-up town halls and on-topic discussions, particularly as the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. News is often cheaper to produce than an hour-long drama and it’s more relevant and current than any episode scripted and shot weeks in advance of its air date.
NBC News for years enjoyed a dominant position in news programing. Its “Today” under Katie Couric and Matt Lauer commanded bigger audiences than ABC’s “GMA.” And its “NBC Nightly News,” led by Tom Brokaw then Brian Williams, won larger crowds as well.
In recent years, however, that has not been the case. While “Today” continues to lead in the viewer demographic most coveted by advertisers, people between 25 and 54, “Good Morning America” has been the nation’s most-watched program, more or less, since usurping “Today” in that category back in 2012. Meanwhile, ABC’s “World News Tonight” has become a significant presence in the TV business, winning more than 8 million viewers each week and handily outrunning “Nightly News” in the process.
NBC News has more resources at its disposal. It is, after all, affiliated with MSNBC, CNBC and the news operations of Telemundo – all parts of Comcast’s massive NBCUniversal media conglomerate.
But ABC News, under its president, James Goldston, has placed an emphasis on securing big “gets” with colorful personalities and widely discussed stories that draw viewership any network might like. It was ABC News in 2018 that dispatched foreign correspondents to keep a flow of information coming about a group of 12 boys rescued from a network of flooded caves in Thailand – and produce two different “20/20” specials about it. And it was ABC News that captured national attention for its exclusive interview of the former Bruce Jenner in 2015 before he transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner.
ABC News has done something once seen as impossible for network news divisions. It has won new hours on the schedule, taking over “The View” in 2014, launching an early-afternoon extension of “Good Morning America” in 2018, and, more recently, expanding the hours of its Saturday “GMA” broadcast.
But NBC clearly has plans for its news assets. NBCUniversal recently agreed to consolidate CNBC, run for the past few years independently of NBC News and MSNBC, with those two businesses. Now all three operations are under the aegis of Cesar Conde, an up-and-coming executive at NBCUniversal who has in his early tenure worked to burnish cooperation between his various newsgathering operations. He has also tested some counterintuitive moves, such as hiring former Fox News anchor Shepard Smith to lead a new 7 p.m. news hour at CNBC – an hour once reserved for repeats of reality programming.
The desire to outmaneuver the other is leading both news units into difficult terrain. In a more typical election cycle, Biden and Trump would have taken part in the second of a series of meetings organized by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Due to Trump’s exposure to coronavirus, the Commission declared the second debate – also slated to proceed in a town-hall format – would be “virtual,” with the candidates holding forth from remote locations.
NBC News took the unorthodox role of pressing for the Trump campaign to meet specific health and safety protocols in order to proceed with the event. At the network’s insistence, the National Institutes of Health had to run tests, examine recent medical data and determine President Trump was no longer shedding infectious virus. NBC News said Wednesday that Dr. Clifford Lane, Clinical Director at NIH, and Dr. Anthony Fauci reviewed the president’s recent medical data as part of the process. The network is giving Trump the same amount of time and same circumstances it offered to Biden when he recently did a town hall moderated by Lester Holt.
Both NBC and ABC will help accomplish something organizers no doubt wanted to thwart. Rather than seeing both candidates answering similar questions in the same forum, the attention of the American public will be fractured. Supporters of either candidate can choose to watch only that candidate, rather than seeing that politician cross-examined by a moderator and having his views contrasted by those of his opponent. To be sure, viewers who want to see both broadcasts can, thanks to digital technology and streaming video, but doing so will require a level of activity that has not been expected of voters in past years.
“The purpose of the town halls is to inform a public struggling to get good information and get their own point of view on the candidates. ABC did the right thing by scheduling its town hall once the second debate collapsed,” says Merrill Brown, a journalism entrepreneur who is a former executive editor of MSNBC.com and founder of The News Project, a company that provides digital tools to news start-ups. “NBC, unfortunately, with the right instinct to hold its own town hall, could have held it at a point that was not opposite ABC’s. The public has a limited-time attention span to begin with,” He suggested the network choose another day or time slot for its event.
Why are the two networks taking part in such intrigue? “No mystery here,” said Ben Sherwood, the former ABC News president who helped boost the fortunes of “Good Morning America” during his tenure. NBC’s town hall “is old-fashioned counter-programming,” he said via Twitter Wednesday, “intended to compete with and split the audience with Joe Biden and ABC News… with inevitable critiques of ‘shows’ and comparison of ratings.”
The fight for the White House between Trump and Biden will eventually come to an end. The war for news ratings and audiences between ABC News and NBC News will not.