It is when headlines are heaviest that television news has its best chance to showcase its wares. Even in times when there is no public health crisis, the audience for news grows when major stories break as casual viewers join the ranks of the 20m-or-so regulars for whom the network nightly newscasts are part of their daily media diet.
The pool of viewers that the newscasts have a chance to impress always expands on the 5%-or-so of days when a major story takes up more than half of the networks' newshole. The coronavirus pandemic qualifies as such an event: it has been the top story each week since the third week of February, and has occupied at least half of the newshole since the first week of March.
The opportunity to convert sampling viewers into regular audience members is even greater under these pandemic circumstances. Stay-at-home laws mean that television in general has fewer rival distractions to tempt viewers' eyeballs. And the absence of sports means that the news has one fewer rival genre once television has been switched on. When the actual content of the news is important, viewers can find it no burden to abandon their binge streaming of sitcom reruns for an odd half hour in order to catch up on the day's headlines.
So the nightly newscasts have an unusual opportunity to regain the status they once enjoyed, as a regular journalistic date with a mass audience. As is to be expected during a period of dominance by a single story, all three networks have tightened their routines, taking a less scattershot approach, filing fewer and longer produced packages from their correspondents.
ABC World News Tonight has adapted to the crisis with radical changes. CBS Evening News, whose newly-arrived anchor Norah O'Donnell is least familiar to audiences, has made one notable innovation to showcase her talents. The changes at NBC Nightly News are smaller: the newscast has done less than its rivals to use the crisis to thrust anchor Lester Holt into the spotlight. This reluctance is puzzling, since NBC's publicity department has gone out of its way to present Holt as a unique asset. "Turn to the most trusted TV news anchor in America" is its marketing slogan.
To measure the format changes, the last three weeks of weekday newscasts (from March 16th through April 3rd) were compared with a three-week period before the outbreak. In order to avoid distortions that the holidays might cause, a three-week period between Thanksgiving and Christmas was selected: December 2nd through December 20th. This was a period when impeachment was working its way through the House of Representatives -- but the comparison did not examine the content of the newscasts; it examined their format instead.
First, there is the balance between anchors and correspondents: produced packages filed by correspondents are the staple of these newscasts, with the anchor largely confined to an introductory role. In the 15-day period in December, NBC had the most rapid-fire format, airing almost ten such packages on average for each newscast (140 in 15 days vs ABC 98, CBS 110). During the 15 days of corona domination, all three used fewer correspondents, with the cuts at ABC amounting to a radical 31% (only 68 produced reports vs CBS 92, NBC 115).
Second, the almost-daily innovation at CBS was to replace one of these correspondent packages with a newsmaker interview conducted by anchor O'Donnell herself. CBS Evening News included a corona interview on 12 of those 15 days, whereas the December period contained none at all. O'Donnell has questioned government officials -- the NIH's Anthony Fauci twice (here and here), the Surgeon General, the Secretary of Defense, White House coordinator Deborah Birx -- and public health experts along with in-house consultants.
Third, there are day's headlines: even in December, all three newscasts assigned to their anchors the task of introducing the day's agenda -- the so-called tease -- that is supposed to whet the audience's appetite to stay tuned rather than flipping the remote to check out more enticing fare. Already the tease had become tedious, taking on encyclopedic proportions, explaining each upcoming story in such detail that a viewer felt like a captive diner in a pretentious restaurant, having to listen to every last ingredient added to each dish, even the ones that would never be ordered.
So back in December, an ABC viewer would have to wade through an average of 2:15 minutes of teases before having the opportunity to hear what the first correspondent had to report; on CBS the wait was 2:09 minutes; on NBC 1:44.
See how the coronavirus has shifted the burden of presenting the details of the day's developments onto the anchor's shoulders: at NBC hardly at all with the first package being filed 1:54 minutes into the newscast; at CBS the introduction is slightly longer at 2:33.
But ABC has made David Muir so central to its news delivery that sometimes a viewer has to wait fully four minutes before any report is filed from the field. Muir teases all the stories of the day before his newscast's opening titles and then re-announces them all again before relinquishing the microphone. Compared with December, his introduction is fully 69% longer, for an average wait of 3:49 minutes before a newsgathering correspondent appears.
ABC appears to have decided that Muir will be a habit that is hard to break even after social distancing is repealed.
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