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Know what has become the most-watched show on TV over the past six weeks?
Nope, it isn’t “The Voice” or “NCIS” or “American Idol.”
It’s the news. Specifically, it’s ABC’s “World News Tonight.” And it’s the most striking example of how America has returned to the days of watching the news.
Is it that everyone is cooped up at home with nothing to do? Is it that people are craving whatever information they can get about the coronavirus? Or are people rediscovering the power and importance of television news?
Maybe it’s all of the above. Whatever the reason, TV news numbers are up. Way up.
Fox News is seeing some of its best primetime viewership numbers in the history of the network. All the cable news networks, in fact, are seeing whopping increases in primetime programming from a year ago. CNN is up 168%, Fox News is up 45% and MSNBC is up 24%.
Sunday morning news shows are seeing the same. Over the past month, NBC’s “Meet the Press” has had some of its highest-rated shows in 15 years. CBS’s “Face the Nation” recently had its most-watched show in 28 years. “Fox News Sunday” had its most-watched show since right after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.
CBS’s “60 Minutes” is consistently among the top five programs each week.
And some of the biggest gains are being seen in an area that is well past its glory days: the national evening news. Variety’s Brian Steinberg wrote that between March 16 and April 7, about 31 million people watched one of the three national network evening news broadcasts. That’s a 42% increase from a year ago. PBS’s “NewsHour” is up about 34%.
ABC’s “World News Tonight” is leading the pack, slightly over the “NBC Nightly News.” In five of the past six weeks, ABC’s “World News Tonight” has been the most-watched show on all of television, often pulling in around 12 million viewers. The program hasn’t seen audiences like this since 2000. The “NBC Nightly News,” often drawing more than 11 million, has had its best viewership since 2005. The “CBS Evening News” is drawing just under 8 million viewers, which is a 21% increase from a year ago. All three broadcasts are now usually among the top 10 most-watched programs in America.
That was unthinkable just a few months ago.
These numbers are dwarfed by the good old days of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings — when the nightly news was must-watch viewing for many Americans. It was common for 25 to 30 million viewers to tune in to watch Cronkite, the so-called “most trusted man in America.” Even as recently as 1980, more than 42 million would watch the evening news. Of course, it should be noted that those big numbers came when there were very few TV stations and little to no news competition for the big three.
As cable and the internet exploded, network news saw a massive drop in viewership. The decline has been steady over the past several years.
While the networks will never get back to those Cronkite glory days, the current numbers are impressive by today’s standards.
Now the question is: Is this just a blip because of the coronavirus or is the evening news’ comeback permanent?
Former CBS News president Andrew Heyward told Steinberg, “I think it’s more than a blip,” adding that more younger viewers are tuning in and could become regulars. According to Nielsen, there has been a 67% jump in viewers ages 25-54. There’s also a belief that people will keep tuning in because the coronavirus story will continue being the dominant news story for a long time — maybe a year or longer. Add in coverage of the November presidential election and its aftermath, and the evening news might become a habit for those who had either stopped or who had never watched the evening news before the coronavirus story.
The other reason for the recent surge could be that the evening news has a reputation — and I would suggest that it is well earned — of delivering the facts without the biased punditry that has become a staple of cable news networks, particularly in primetime.
“CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell recently told The New York Times’ John Koblin, “We play it right down the middle every night. I think in this era, when people are fearful and looking for trusted sources, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, let me tune in at 6:30 Eastern, because I know I’m going to get just the facts.’”
The work being done on the evening news is better than it has even been. That was true before the coronavirus story and it is being proven again now. To see viewers tuning in is heartening.
Let’s hope new viewers stick with it long after the coronavirus story has faded — whenever that is.
A sobering shift in coverage
As newspapers try to keep up with all the coronavirus news, it’s not unusual to see an all-hands-on-deck approach. Sportswriters, business writers, feature writers — they are all pitching in to write coronavirus stories.
But this is sobering: The New York Times is shifting writers over to the obituary department to keep up with all the deaths. Right after 9/11, the Times introduced “Portraits of Grief” — short obits for those who died in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on Flight 93. Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo now reports that the Times is shifting reporters from various departments to help write the “Those We’ve Lost” features about those who have died from the coronavirus.
Carolyn Ryan, a Times assistant managing editor who helps oversee newsroom staffing, told Pompeo, “The obits desk was flooded. Keeping up with the deaths, including the high number of elderly cultural figures from New York, is a big challenge.”
Reporters from sports, style and food are all pitching in with the series.
Donald Trump, just last month, wanted to start a daily talk-radio show. And he would have, too, but he didn’t want to compete against his good buddy, Rush Limbaugh. This is all according to a story written by Elaina Plott in The New York Times.
Plott reported that Trump believed a show would help calm the nation’s fears about the coronavirus and allow him to answer questions directly from Americans. He floated the idea to members of the coronavirus task force.
“No one in the room was sure how to respond, two of the officials said. Someone suggested hosting the show in the mornings or on weekends, to steer clear of the conservative radio host’s schedule,” Plott wrote. “But Mr. Trump shook his head, saying he envisioned his show as two hours a day, every day. And were it not for Mr. Limbaugh, and the risk of encroaching on his territory, he reiterated, he would do it.”
Plott also reported that a source told her this wasn’t the first time Trump has discussed hosting a radio show from the White House.
Can you imagine a president hosting a radio show and taking phone calls?
“Let’s go to Lou in Schenectady.”
“Hey, Mr. President. Longtime listener. First-time caller.”
Instead of a radio show, it appears the president has settled for a two-hour daily TV show, otherwise known as the White House coronavirus task force press conference.
“Fox & Friends” had a viral moment Wednesday when White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said something so ridiculous that it really did sound like something from a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
Criticizing the World Health Organization, Conway said, “Some of the scientists and doctors say there could be other strains later on this, this could come back in the fall in a limited way. This is COVID-19, not COVID-1, folks. You would think that people charged with the World Health Organization facts and figures would be on top of that.”
She wasn’t serious, right? Surely she knows that COVID-19 is not the 19th strain of the virus, but was named 19 because of the year it was discovered. In fact, I’m convinced Conway was trolling. She is a lot of things — most notably stubbornly loyal to President Trump — but she doesn’t strike me as so clueless as to not know how COVID-19 got its name.
But it does raise the question of why networks have her on as a guest. That even goes for Fox News, a friend of Conway and the current White House. On Wednesday, she either really was ignorant, playing the role of a demagogue and insulting Fox News viewers by insinuating they are ignorant, or she was intentionally saying something outrageous for some other who-knows-why reason.
Whatever the answer, more attention is being paid to her goofy comment than the overall point she was trying to make. That’s often what happens when she’s on TV. Which is what so often makes her a lousy guest.
Watch the language
With no games, “The Last Dance” — ESPN’s 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls — is the most anticipated thing in sports. It’s set to debut Sunday night. And now ESPN is spicing it up.
Variety’s Brian Steinberg reports that there will be two versions of the documentary — one that includes profanity and another with the curse words bleeped out.
ESPN will air the unedited version with all the R-rated words, while ESPN2 will air the bleeped-out version at the same time. Connor Schell, ESPN’s executive vice president of content, told Steinberg that airing the unedited version “makes it feel more honest and more authentic and raw.” But, Schell said, the other version is so “all members of the family get to watch this.”
“The Last Dance” will air on Sunday nights from April 19 through May 17.
- Vice TV is launching a new primetime news and culture talk show hosted by Time editor-at-large and best-selling author Anand Giridharadas. “Seat at the Table with Anand Giridharadas” will premiere April 22 at 10 p.m. Eastern on Vice TV. The first episode will feature an extensive interview with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
- The first quarter of 2020 was the best quarter ever for Fox News Digital. The historic numbers included average monthly multiplatform unique visitors (119.8 million), total multiplatform views (5.7 billion) and total multiplatform minutes (13.2 billion).
- MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” will have a special hour this morning at 8 a.m. Eastern with “Morning Joe Special Report: Isolation Nation.” It will include Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, Lady Gaga and more.
- Savannah Guthrie is scheduled to interview Secretary of Defense Mark Esper live on this morning’s “Today” show.
- Axios launched its first mobile app Wednesday, two weeks earlier than scheduled to meet the demand for coronavirus coverage. It’s free with no login required.
- In a piece for The New York Times, epidemiologists Britta L. Jewell and Nicholas P. Jewell estimate how many lives might have been saved had widespread social distancing been put in place just a week or two earlier. The numbers are eye-opening.
- Another from The New York Times: Michael Rothfeld, Jesse Drucker and William K. Rashbaum with “The Heartbreaking Last Texts of a Hospital Worker on the Front Lines.” It truly is gut-wrenching.
- And to make it an all-Times “Hot type,” I thought I’d refer you to this somewhat short story from Jan. 6 written by Sui-Lee Wee and Vivian Wang. Check out the headline: “China Grapples with Mystery Pneumonia-Like Illness.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources for journalists
- On Poynt Live training: April 16 at 2 p.m. Eastern — COVID-19 Data Sources to Make Fact-Checking Easy — Poynter
- Sign up to receive our new Coronavirus Facts newsletter — PolitiFact and MediaWise
- What Does the Coronavirus Recession Mean for School Finance? April 16 at 2 p.m. — Education Writers Association
- When the newsroom becomes your living room: Reporting in the age of COVID-19, April 17 at 7 p.m Eastern — National Association of Hispanic Journalists
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