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From Big Debate to ‘Today,’ Coronavirus Forces Quick Change for TV News

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left,
Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

The nation’s biggest news networks are being swept along by the very headlines they’re trying to deliver.

Two of the biggest TV-news operations have had to make noticeable changes to their most important programs and redirect personnel behind the scenes in the earliest days of America’s coronavirus crisis, even as those staffers come under increasing pressure to keep America informed about the latest developments around the contagion.

NBC News took “Today” regulars Al Roker and Craig Melvin off the air Monday, citing the discovery that a staffer who works for the 9 a.m. production of “Today” had developed “mild” symptoms after testing positive for coronavirus. CBS News has detailed at least four employees who have tested positive and had to close much of its New York facilities temporarily, sending “CBS This Morning” for a period of time to broadcast from Washington, D.C. Among the afflicted is Seth Doane, a veteran foreign correspondent who is jumping to work for “60 Minutes” as part of its new content venture with the Quibi short-form video service. Doane has chosen to report on air about his experience grappling with the virus.

Journalists are supposed to tell stories, not become part of them. But during an unprecedented moment in history, the anchors who come into our lives each day via a panoply of screens are grappling with many of the same conditions their viewers are.

“It will be a day by day journey,” said Susan Zirinsky, president of CBS News, in a memo to staffers sent Sunday night. She added: “We are committed to continuing our broadcasts and serving the public without compromising the safety of our employees.”

CNN and Fox News have both taken new staffing measures, dispatching many employees to work from home, and in some cases, conducting more on-screen interviews with people from remote locations, rather than in the studio. In a video snippet posted Monday from “CBS This Morning,” co-anchor Gayle King demonstrated how she, Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil were maintaining an appropriate distance from each other at the show’s signature round table. On Fox News Channel’s “Outnumbered,” co-anchors Harris Faulkner and Melissa Francis have been seen seated further away from each other than has been the norm.

ABC News hasn’t brought live audiences into its programs since last Tuesday, eliminating in-studio crowds for the second hour of “Good Morning America,” among others, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Walt Disney-owned news outlet has encouraging staff to work from home except for specific functions that can only be done on site, stagger work shifts and reduce the number of people working in any one location at the same time. At “Nightline,”  co-anchors Juju Chang and Byron Pitts have agreed not to be at ABC News headquarters in New York at the same time, Pitts said.

The coronavirus spread has already affected what news viewers see on screen. CNN’s telecast of a debate between Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden was shifted from a public venue in Arizona to the network’s Washington, D.C. studio  – and won plaudits for carrying a more serious tone. ABC will “swap” the time slots of its wee-hours news program “Nightline” with late-night mainstay “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which will be in repeats for the next two weeks. The move evokes a past era, when Ted Koppel launched “Nightline” as an end-of-day review of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980. NBC News plans to air a Thursday night special, anchored by Lester Holt, across both NBC and MSNBC.

Fox News, meanwhile, has recalibrated its 1 p.m. hour, where anchors Harris Faulkner is moderating  “Coronavirus Pandemic: Questions Answered.” The one-hour show features a Q&A with physicians. The network also noticeably preempted Laura Ingraham’s prime-time opinion show on Friday night in favor of a news hour led by Bill Hemmer, and has expanded Shannon Bream’s 11 p.m. show to 1 a..m. and put Trace Gallagher to anchor live overnights.  Fox Business has scuttled most of its primetime programming for the foreseeable future to devote more resources to the coronavirus story.

There will likely be more to come. A different set of anchors and contributors may well get more screen time, as Jennifer Ashton, ABC News’ chief medical correspondent, has begun to receive across ABC News. Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta have already hosted two town hall broadcasts at CNN. News organizations are likely to augment TV coverage with a range of new products, including a new CNN podcast from Gupta and a noontime newsletter from Fox News centered on coronavirus. Stephanie Ruhle, NBC News’ newly named chief business correspondent, has been spotted on several different programs to explain sharp downturns in the stock market.

“With so many changes happening to our daily lives – on both the personal and professional fronts – it can be quite confusing and overwhelming,” CBS News’ Zirinsky told employees in her memo. As the news outlets scramble to stay ahead of the story – and the far-reaching personnel effects coronavirus may have – the velocity with which they act may be head-spinning.