Broadcast journalist Ashleigh Banfield made her mark in cable news during 9/11 and its aftermath. She’s reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and other far-flung hot spots. But there’s one form of TV she’s never had the chance to try, until now.
Banfield has signed on with WGN America to host a 10 p.m. ET talk show on weeknights starting March 1. “Banfield” is billed as a new take on the style of program that Larry King hosted for CNN in the 9 p.m. hour for 25 years. The interview-driven show will focus on newsmakers and issues but also celebrities and human interest stories.
“I’m an avid news junkie. Something that’s been missing for me as a consumer has been the center lane,” Banfield told Variety. “I’m exhausted by the breathless fights in cable news and I long for the days when I could just be informed of what was happening nationally and internationally without attitude.”
Banfield emphasized that she was a regular viewer of “Larry King Live” during its long run on CNN, where she also worked, and she is taking inspiration from his deep-dive format.
“Larry King used to dig deep into his subject matter. He had the time and he wasn’t rushed. He wasn’t worried about bells and whistles and graphics,” she said. “He had the time to slow down, dig in and really feel the story.”
The program will originate from a studio in Connecticut. Banfield said will be anchored by a sit-down interview with a notable figure. Some episodes may have more than one guest. Hiring for production positions on the show has already begun, she said.
“It’s going to be a very booking-driven show” Banfield said. “The executive producer will be somebody extremely well versed in the art of booking talent.”
The arrival of “Banfield” will replace the third hour of WGN America’s three-hour national primetime newscast, “News Nation,” which launched on Sept. 1. The three-hour news block replaced comedy and drama reruns and low-cost imports on WGN America’s primetime slot. The plan is to add more hours of news programming earlier in the day, but Nexstar has not yet confirmed specifics.
Viewership of “NewsNation” has so far been weak. WGN America is down as much as 40% or more since the newscast debuted. Recruiting Banfield for an interview showcase series in the competitive 10 p.m. hour is a sign of WGN America owner Nexstar Media Group’s commitment to investing in and nurturing the “News Nation” concept. Average linear ratings in primetime are down below the 100,000 viewer threshold. But Nexstar Media has reason to be patient.
“News Nation” is produced in part with contributions from local news operations at the company’s nearly 200 stations around the country, offering natural efficiencies for a company that employs 5,600 journalists. If the ratings pickup, the upside on “NewsNation” for Nexstar is enormous because the company owns the content outright and controls all ad inventory in the lucrative primetime day part. As a bonus it’s produced with great efficiency, harnessing the power of Nexstar’s reach as the nation’s largest owner of TV stations.
“As WGN America begins expanding its programming and distribution in 2021, Ashleigh’s national appeal and network experience will help us reach new viewers seeking balance, not bias in news reporting, and talk programming that offers several points of view,” said Sean Compton, President, Networks, Nexstar Media Group. “We are excited to add ‘Banfield’ to our growing lineup of news programming.”
Banfield has had a long career in TV news, working as an anchor and correspondent for CNN, HLN, MSNBC, ABC News, NBC News, TruTV and Court TV among others. At present she is a legal analyst for Court TV and contributor to Investigation Discovery.
Banfield said she’s been trying to take a stab at an interview show for nearly 20 years, since she returned to New York for MSNBC after hosting the series “A Region In Conflict” and “On Location” for the news cabler. But even then, she tried to persuade MSNBC executives to let her “morph” the show into a studio-based talk show.
“It wasn’t in the cards but the desire to do this has never left me,” Banfield said. “I’ve been doing news for 33 years — nothing fazes me. I can do any kind of news you need.”
But the opportunity for free-flowing conversations with prominent people is extremely appealing.
“There’s nothing more satisfying that to be able to follow a vein of interesting conversation without a countdown in my ear,” she said.