After six decades, CBS’s “Face the Nation” transforms for its biggest story yet, and earns its best viewership in years

Moderator Margaret Brennan and executive producer Mary Hager talk about how the iconic Sunday show has covered the coronavirus

May 19, 2020

The venerable CBS Sunday morning political news program “Face the Nation” has helped viewers navigate the most newsworthy moments since 1954 — from the Kennedy assassination to Watergate to 9/11 to the financial crash of 2008

But the show has never been more important than right now.

“It’s an hourlong public service announcement,” said Mary Hager, the show’s executive producer. “This is the biggest story of our lives.”

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” moderator Margaret Brennan said.

Last week, I spoke by phone with Hager and Brennan to talk about “Face the Nation’s” mission at this moment, its responsibility and how the show has changed since the coronavirus. And, yes, it has changed.

“The world has changed,” Brennan said. “The universe is off its axis.”

Before coronavirus, the show — like its counterparts at NBC (“Meet the Press”) and ABC (“This Week”) — chugged along, focusing on the latest news of the week. Not long ago that was Russia, impeachment, Trump, the election. It was dependable and important, if not always critical.

Then the coronavirus changed everything, including the show.

For starters, the actual mechanics of the show — how it is put together — have been greatly altered, from production to planning to the staff working remotely to wearing masks on set. Guests stopped coming into the studio. Brennan still works from the “Face the Nation” set with a scaled-back crew at CBS’s Washington, D.C., studio, but she has a backup studio in her home if needed in a pinch.

Editorially, the show has changed as well.

“We made the decision early on … that we needed to fill that role of being a public affairs broadcast,” Brennan said. “And meeting the need of the public that wants to know just what is going on in the most basic sense of their health and their well-being. People really, I have found, have a hunger for fact right now in a way that is somewhat overwhelming. There is very little appetite for some of the politics around this.”

Hager put it this way: “People want news; they don’t want noise.”

Brennan with Gary Cohn, former director of the National Economic Council during an interview on January 17, 2020. (Chris Usher/CBS)

Viewership numbers prove it. All Sunday shows are seeing a major resurgence, with “Face the Nation” leading the way. The show is averaging 4.4 million viewers a week since coronavirus and has seen some of their best viewership numbers in 28 years.

But the greater the viewership, the greater the responsibility.

“This is really a moment of such gravity and such responsibility,” Brennan said. “This is one of those moments where you are talking about people’s life and death and their well-being and their families. You don’t get more personal than that. And you don’t get more responsibility than what comes with that and making sure that the quality of information you’re providing is accurate and is up to date.”

That has not been easy. With ever-changing news and breaking updates, “Face the Nation” has had to constantly change on the fly — shifting topics and guests, often at the last minute.

That means not only paying attention to what’s going on at the national level, but with what’s happening at the state and local level. Brennan noted that, occasionally, governors and big-city mayors might be having news conferences while “Face the Nation” is on the air. And what might seem like a big deal on a Friday is no longer important come Sunday morning.

“We have to make sure we know what’s going on is an all-hands-on-deck with our entire staff,” Brennan said. “We’re constantly trying to weed through all of it for the nuggets that we can decide are best discussed on the program.”

Making that responsibility so much more difficult is trying to provide authoritative information about a virus when there is still so much unknown about that virus. The show relies heavily on its medical experts, such as Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration. Still, how can anyone be sure, for example, how safe it is to go to a restaurant or allow our children to return to school?

“I think the Sunday morning show is more important now than ever,” Hager said. “We have a huge responsibility to viewers, to Americans, to anyone we can get to watch the show. We have this gift of an hour, and the decisions and the discussions that we have that go toward the decisions we make in terms of who we book for the show are more important now than ever.”

The show hasn’t undergone a complete overhaul, but it has been retooled for the moment. Guests are now the show’s No. 1 priority. So much so that “Face the Nation” has made the gutsy decision to temporarily suspend what is a Sunday morning news show staple: the panel.

“It was a very simple decision when this really hit,” Hager said. “We love the panels. Everyone loves the panels. It’s a great way to kind of chew on what’s happened during the course of the week, but it became a question of time. It was just more important for us to find more newsmakers, doctors, scientists, economists, people who were newsmakers who really knew substance that they could share with the viewers.”

In fact, Hager said, the show hasn’t even discussed when or if the panels will return. Besides, panel members appearing through computers instead of being in the studio feels disjointed and awkward. They come off more like separate interviews as opposed to free-flowing discussions. That’s why Brennan is more than happy to use the hour on guests.

“We literally wanted to squeeze out as much information that we could and squeeze into the hour that we have,” Brennan said. “If anything, deluge of news right now, we could go beyond the hour with guests. … I feel like hearing from the decision-makers and policy-makers is the most important thing right now because there’s so much gravity to it.”

Hager has been with the “Face the Nation” for 10 years and said that the show has never taken the booking of guests more seriously. It’s hard to pick out any one signature moment of “Face the Nation’s” coverage over the past two months. Several stand out, including interviews with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the king of Jordan and, in a rare appearance, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai.

Brennan with Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai during an interview on February 9, 2020.
(Chris Usher/CBS)

The show has also been at the forefront of the economic aspect of the story, having guests such as the CEOs of FedEx and Southwest Airlines, media mogul Barry Diller and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan.

“We’re trying to tell the story of what’s happening in America right now,” Brennan said. “It was very clear early on that there was going to be an economic portion to this story. I don’t think anyone imagined we would be in the depths that we are now.”

Through it all, “Face the Nation” is shining, and much of the credit for that goes to Brennan. In February 2018, Brennan became the 10th moderator of “Face the Nation” and just the second woman in that role behind Lesley Stahl (1983-1991). Before the coronavirus, Brennan had a well-earned reputation of asking tough but fair questions in a style that was non-confrontational, but no-nonsense.

Her work during the coronavirus has been exceptional.

“I’ve said it since I became moderator that I felt the great responsibility that came with this particular role,” Brennan said. “I think the weight of that responsibility is even greater right now.”

What’s rewarding is that viewers seem to be responding to her and, most of all, to the show.

“I think people are hungry for fact,” Brennan said. “I think people are hungry for context and for information. That is why I certainly hear. I feel like that’s the mission we feel we have and that we are trying to serve on Sunday. I’m thrilled that that is resonating, but I feel like there is a reason that we need to do this and be at the top of our game at this moment.”

Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.