Hollywood’s new normal means movie theaters are closed across the country, 120,000 crew members have lost their jobs and production has shut down. With sporting events halted and daytime talk shows on indefinite hiatus, live programming is essentially nonexistent. Most individuals within the entertainment business are out of work. If they’re lucky, they’re forced to work from home.
But for TV doctors, times have never been busier.
What the Super Bowl is to sports broadcasters, the coronavirus crisis is to medical correspondents — except they’re not in it for ratings, advertising dollars or entertainment value: Television doctors are working overtime to educate their viewers and keep audiences calmly informed during the biggest global pandemic in history.
“It’s a little bit like internship in medicine, which was actually the busiest time in my life,” Dr. Mehmet Oz says of his schedule in light of the coronavirus. “Swine flu was not close to this — even Katrina was not close to this,” he says of the devastating 2005 New Orleans hurricane that he covered on the ground when he was a regular contributor on Oprah Winfrey’s show.
As news organizations scramble to add more hours of COVID-19-related programming, viewership is surging, signaling the public’s desperate desire for continuous information on the deadly virus. The three broadcast networks are seeing the highest ratings in more than 15 years for their nightly newscasts, with ABC’s David Muir, NBC’s Lester Holt and CBS’ Norah O’Donnell all breaking records. In March, Fox News clocked its highest viewership of 2020, and its town hall about the virus, which aired in the middle of the day when viewers typically aren’t home, brought in 4.4 million viewers, marking the largest town hall in cable news history. CNN’s viewership is up more than 150% from last year, while MSNBC has seen a 45% increase. Local news is also feeding viewers’ interest, with major markets delivering special coverage dedicated to the pandemic, such as Fox’s Los Angeles affiliate, KTTV, which now has a nightly half-hour program with Dr. Drew Pinsky.
With widespread interest, news programs have put the spotlight on their medical correspondents, who typically don’t get much airtime.
At ABC News, chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, an OB-GYN with her own practice in New Jersey, has become the network’s most in-demand star and a household face. Most days, Ashton wakes up with viewers on “Good Morning America” and addresses them before they go to sleep on “Nightline,” with back-to-back appearances in between on “World News Tonight,” the digital livestream “ABC News Live,” affiliate hits, podcast recordings, radio interviews and the network’s new daytime series, “Pandemic: What You Need to Know,” anchored by Amy Robach. Promos of Ashton are running across other Disney properties, like Freeform, where she reminds viewers of all demographics to self-isolate.
“What has been dramatic with this story is my coverage on other ABC shows. The requests from other television shows have been massive and unprecedented,” Ashton says of appearing on programs like “The View” and “Live With Kelly and Ryan,” which recently Skyped her in for a chat while the two morning hosts were broadcasting live from their homes in pajamas.
With so much information to go around, networks are cross-pollinating in a way they never would have before in the competitive fight for ratings.
“I’m touched deeply by how much coronavirus has forced people to wake up to the realities of life and break down the barriers,” Oz says. “I was talking to a very senior leader at Fox about doing a show that would involve me participating in a different network, that would involve me going on a different platform, that I normally wouldn’t do, and he said, ‘We are all in this together. You go do what you need to do.’ Every other executive and producer I’ve spoken to has said the same thing,” Oz says, noting that both Ashton and his friend Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the chief medical correspondent at CNN, recently appeared on his syndicated daytime show.
Offering a glimpse into the world of 24/7 cable news, Gupta has appeared on almost every program’s hour, has participated in town halls with Anderson Cooper and also hosts a podcast, “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
“We’ve broken every rule we have,” a spokesperson for Oz says in regard to the host’s schedule. Typically, on days when Oz tapes his show, he does not agree to any additional interviews. During the spread of the coronavirus, he’s been averaging 20 interviews per day.
As America’s most plugged-in medical experts during this time, TV doctors have turned to politics. In early March, Gupta was one of four medical correspondents who met with Vice President Mike Pence to discuss the crisis, along with Dr. Michael Crupain, the medical unit chief of staff at “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Dr. Jonathan LaPook, the chief medical correspondent at CBS News. Last week, Oz — who is helping fund a clinical trial at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, contributing $250,000 — questioned President Trump about his patient discharge process during a Fox News town hall.
Ashton has temporarily closed her medical offices and is operating via telemedicine only, except in emergencies, a strategy used by many doctors in New York who specialize. That means she’s still in contact with her patients — who always come first, even if a prescription needs to be called in — but prior to the crisis, she would spend many of her days as a real doctor, not just as a TV doctor. After early segments on “Good Morning America,” Ashton would see patients from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
While she’s juggling reporting and numerous segments per day, Ashton, like many other Americans, has to worry about her business and employees. “My practice is a private practice, so I’m not paid by a hospital,” she says, adding that she will likely have to take a small business loan to keep her office running, which she has every intention of doing. “If I can’t see patients, I can’t pay my staff or my rent. So there was actually a time that I thought this crisis might cause me to go out of business and close my medical practice.”
With many medical professionals turning to virtual business, people are increasingly looking to TV doctors as trusted experts. “Being informationally embedded in this has become a necessity. Unlike any other story, this has evolved and changed literally by the hour,” Ashton says. “It’s made it absolutely imperative that someone knows what’s going on — not just today, but what happened yesterday.”
Ashton has “a very good way of being realistic and optimistic, and giving tough information to people in a way that they can absorb,” says ABC News president James Goldston.
That personality-driven “it” factor, combined with medical credentials, is what draws the masses to TV doctors during this unprecedented time of uncertainty. Individuals are also turning to social media to seek instant guidance from the doctors they watch on television.
“The most important thing I do is serve as field guide — you don’t have to know everything, but my biggest job is to tell you what you need to know and what you don’t need to know,” Oz says of the unparalleled interaction with his 1 million social media followers, who ask him for his advice on everything from hand sanitizer recommendations to how to safely eat take-out food. “People are scared and panicked, and they need their doctor to just sit with them and work out the issues,” the TV host and cardiothoracic surgeon says.
Ironically, the doctors who are telling viewers how to stay safe have also been hit by the pandemic. Oz’s show was one of the last to remain in production, in an effort to bring up-to-date information to the public, but “The Dr. Oz Show” closed its set on March 19, after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Oz was not in physical contact with the staffer, but since then, he has been working in a home studio that allows him to join any show across the globe, live. “You can’t tell that I’m not in a New York studio. It’s a professional setup,” he says. “I can’t imagine there would be a scenario where I’d have to go out.”
On March 20, Ashton began to work from home after experiencing mild symptoms. She quickly felt better, but has continued to work remotely during her voluntary self-quarantine.
“I’m not sure whether my headache or body aches were COVID-19 — no one can be without getting a test, and I’m definitely not an indication for a precious test over someone else who’s much sicker,” Ashton says. “I literally just got off the air with a special report with George Stephanopoulos. I can broadcast on every single platform and show from home, so to err on the side of caution right now seems like a smart and easy and responsible thing to do.”
Brian Steinberg contributed to this report.