TV News Tests New Frontiers During Coronavirus Cycle

Analysis: From town halls to pandemic diaries, TV news hopes for a programming hit to emerge from its swirl of coverage

Election Politics Media Placeholder
Rose Wong for Variety

The people who like to flash “breaking news” across your TV screen are also working on breaking new ground.

The swirl of the Trump White House had already set the nation’s news media at the apex of a cycle. Now, the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has been like an adrenaline shot on top of an adrenaline shot: every week, it seems, a TV-news outlet scraps an already established hour of programming to launch something entirely different.

Walt Disney’s ABC has gone so far as to cut its flagship late-night program, “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” to half an hour so viewers can get more news about the contagion earlier from “Nightline.”  Thursday nights at CNN have become “town hall” nights, with Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta conjuring up everyone from Dr. Anthony Fauci to Alicia Keys to discuss this new era of U.S. dystopia. NBC has devoted a chunk of Tuesday primetime to a new hour of pandemic analysis led by Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb. President Trump’s coronavirus briefings have helped bring thousands of new viewers to late-day Fox News staples like Bret Baier’s “Special Report,” “The Five” and Martha MacCallum’s “The Story,” which in April quickly became some of that network’s most-watched programs.

It’s hard to remember that less than three months ago, the TV-news industry was fretting over a seeming feud between CBS News’ Gayle King and Snoop Dogg.

Suddenly, medical correspondents are in higher demand than foreign correspondents. And some TV anchors have fast become the story themselves, after disclosing they or one of their family members has tested positive for the illness.

“The coronavirus has limited television newsgathering, because of the risk of sending crews out into the field, so the networks are getting creative in trying different formats in their studios – town halls, extended interviews, special event coverage, practical tips – ‘news you can use’ – and the like.  Necessity is the mother of invention here,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of the broadcast journalism program at the University of Maryland. “At the same time, because people are staying home, they’re watching television in record numbers, which is not just a short-term ratings opportunity for networks, but potentially a long-term opportunity for higher ratings, because viewership is often up for grabs in times of crises. “

Even as more people are sheltering at home and paying attention to news programming day and night, the media companies behind them are grappling with the vicissitudes of an economy hurt by the pandemic. In January, market-research firm Kagan, part of S&P Global, offered robust projections for the nation’s big cable-news outlets as they geared up for the 2020 election. Fox News Channel would secure $1.32 billion in advertising in 2020, an increase of 7.9% over 2019. CNN was seen securing around $773.1 million, representing an increase of about 11.7%. And MSNBC was expected to win around $723.1 million, according to Kagan, a raise of about 0.8%.

Now those estimates have changed, after the pandemic has forced Madison Avenue to retrench. Fox News will continue to pull in the greatest amount. Kagan projects Fox News will secure $905.2 million, a decline of about 15% over the prior year. MSNBC is seen taking in about $576.9 million, about 7% less than in 2019. CNN is seen capturing more ad dollars in 2020: Kagan projects the AT&T-backed outlet will lure around $667.4 million, a 15% increase over the prior year.

A person familiar with internal ad-sales data at Fox News says the company has seen an uptick in business in the first and second quarters. In a recent intervew Jeff Collins, executive vice president of ad sales at the network, said fast-food restaurants and a movie studio client have bought commercial time. Fox News has started a new programming initiative that aims to promote inspirational stories, which Collins says has spurred advertiser interest. MSNBC’s parent. NBCUniversal, on May 11 intends to hold a streaming-video presentation to discuss the advertising marketplace.

News flourishes in critical moments, and seminal events often give rise to innovation. ABC’s “Nightline” grew out of late-night coverage of the Iran hostage crisis. MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour” was originally created as a “pop up” show designed to let Brian Williams cap off coverage of the 2016 election.

Could there be potential for other experiments to develop into permanent programs?  Below, we explore some of the possibilities:

Super “Town Halls”:  This format is not new  – indeed, “Nightline” when anchored by Ted Koppel used to host these convocations of newsmakers and “average citizens” – but it has become turbocharged over the course of the last few years. NBC News recently gave more duties to Rashida Jones, a senior vice president who has supervised its debate and special event coverage.

The events are growing in scope. Fox News has unveiled daytime town halls aimed at discussing distance learning, mental health and medical concerns, and daytime anchor Harris Faulkner has led many of them. NBC News recently wrung all it could from an MSNBC event that featured an interview between Guthrie and philanthropist Bill Gates, airing snippets from their talk on other programs. CNN’s Thursday-night event is taking on an end-of-the-week convocation. Singer Keys last week debuted a new song during one last week, adding an element of primetime entertainment to the mix. Last week, CNN teamed up with “Sesame Street” to broadcast a town hall event for kids.

Evening-News Extravaganza: At a time when the nation would no doubt love to have a Chet Huntley and David Brinkley to turn to, their successors are getting some of their biggest viewership numbers in years. The surge has boosted the standing of the evening newscasts, which now rank among the top programs in viewership on their networks.

ABC’s “World News Tonight,” NBC’s “NBC Nightly News” and CBS’ “CBS Evening News” have all leveraged the new attention by testing re-airs or updated second broadcasts in additional time slots. The experiments have added another slice of viewership while allowing the news divisions to burnish their public-service bona fides.  Few observers think the audience levels will remain once the pandemic dissipates, but they also believe the pattern could remain as is for some time – giving the news units a new calling card in their quest to reach new audiences. NBC News recently launched a “kids’ edition” of “Nightly,” an attempt to mix a decades-old mainstay with viewers who have little to do with the patterns that give rise to an evening news program.

Reality Intervenes: Journalists like to cover the story, not become part of it. During the pandemic, however, that has seemed nearly impossible as news personnel at ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, Fox News and CNN have all had to grapple with the effects of coronavirus. The familiar faces from the nation’s biggest morning programs have all scattered and social-distanced to keep their popular shows moving. NBC News’ Holt has been doing the evening news from a home office.

Some anchors have moved from news to drama. At CNN, Chris Cuomo has seen his audience rise while he chronicled his recent bout with coronavirus and anchored his primetime show from his home. CNN seemed to indulge in a reality-TV moment when it had cameras ready to capture what was billed as Cuomo’s first steps out from the basement in which he was quarantined. Over at NBC, Sunday “Nightly News” anchor Kate Snow was shown caring for her husband, who had tested positive for the virus. “So this is what my life is now,” she told viewers as she delivered a tray of food to the guest room where he was staying.

Such moments can seem “self indulgent,” says Feldstein, the University of Maryland professor, but they seem “to be popular with viewers now because it’s so accessible.”

There have also been incidents that seem less forced. Kotb was overcome with emotion after interviewing New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees during a late-March broadcast of NBC’s “Today.” Her on-air partner, Guthrie, quietly took up some reading duties to give the co-anchor a break.

What will live on beyond the immediate moment? “Some of these new formats will work, others won’t, so the networks are throwing different ideas against the wall to see what will stick,” says Feldstein. “I personally think that what will wear best over the long run is straight news delivered without hype.”