Whether Trump Likes it or Not, Network News is Riding a Pandemic Ratings Boom

Broadcast news is experiencing a boom in the wake of COVID-19 as Americans look for information they can trust. Photo Illustration by Gluekit; Source images Getty 3; Logos & David Muir Courtesy of Networks

On April 6, 12 million Americans watched as ABC news anchor David Muir called coronavirus "our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11 moment." Beginning that day and for the rest of the following week ABC's World News Tonight with David Muir did something that even the late, great Walter Cronkite had been unable to do: beat out everything else on television to become the highest-rated show on the air.

World News Tonight was the highest-rated show for six of eight weeks in March and April, topping the likes of highly-rated network entertainment shows like NCIS, The Voice, American Idol and The Masked Singer. ABC is not the only news operation feeling the boost; competitors NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and CBS Evening News with Norah O'Donnell have also been beating most entertainment programming. For the six weeks ending April 26, ratings for ABC's newscast surged 48 percent compared to the same time a year ago, while NBC and CBS were up 37 percent and 24 percent, respectively. (Cable TV evening news shows, which are an hour long compared to broadcast's 30 minutes and have much smaller viewerships, have also seen big gains. Broadcast TV reaches 120 million U.S. homes, compared to about 90 million for cable.) The strong numbers have continued into May.

"The swelling audience is the reflection of a nation," Muir says. "It's rare to witness the intersection of a dire health threat, an economy in collapse and a test of leadership. People want a place to turn to collectively." On May 6, Muir scored a 13-minute interview with President Donald Trump that attracted 10.2 million viewers, more than any other show on broadcast or cable that day. While TV news is a radically different business now than it was in Cronkite's heyday (Muir's 12 million viewer audience is only about half the size of Cronkite's at his peak) some network news executives dare to hope for a rebirth and return to relevance for the evening newscast in the COVID-19 era.

"Coronavirus is a profound event that will have lasting impact, so news is essential viewing," ABC News president James Goldston tells Newsweek. "The evening newscast is an extremely efficient vehicle for telling people everything they need to know and that's more valuable now than it has ever been."

Not that it's all been roses for broadcast news. If coronavirus has brought more eyeballs to evening newscasts, it has also clobbered advertising sales, according to first-quarter financial reports from Comcast, ViacomCBS and Walt Disney, the parent companies of NBC, CBS and ABC, respectively. And in the midst of improved ratings, NBC abruptly ousted its head of news, Andrew Lack, who has been sharply criticized for his handling of accusations of sexual harassment against former Today show host Matt Lauer as well as for how NBC covered disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

"People are realizing our mission has never changed. It's a format that helps them understand their world. Many had forgotten that that's what evening news does," CBS Evening News executive producer Jay Shaylor says.

All the network shows, however, have had to recreate themselves on the fly. "We've proven that we're capable of a technology revolution in a matter of days, delivering high-quality broadcasts from anchors' homes," said Janelle Rodriguez, senior vice president of editorial at NBC News. "We all feel a tremendous responsibility as there's never been a bigger story that we've covered. We need to get this one right." At CBS, anchor O'Donnell has introduced four coronavirus segments to her show: "Racing to a Cure," "Financial Fallout," "From the Front Lines" and "The New Normal," the latter of which recently featured the theory that carhops, outside wait staff for drive-in restaurants, may be making a comeback.

Likewise, ABC's Muir has introduced new wrinkles to his show, including introductions as long as four minutes, not unusual for cable news but unique in broadcast, as well as his feel-good "Made in America" and "America Strong" segments. Recently Muir aired a story on a disabled veteran who waited for hours at a food bank only to find that the shelves were empty. In a follow-up, Muir showed videos of viewers donating cash to the appreciative vet. "It was so profound because he said when he's back on his feet he would pay it forward. No matter how dire things are, there are moments of connection, and they matter," Muir says.

All this comes at a time of intense political polarization and widespread mistrust of the media. In a poll last November, the public relations and marketing firm Edelman, found that while 66 percent of Democrats said they trusted the news media, only 33 percent of Republicans did. Coronavirus may be changing that somewhat. Research firm SmithGeiger said in April that local and network news boasted approval ratings of 75 percent and 61 percent, respectively, much higher than any government body (Congress, at 32 percent, was last). And Pew Research said in March that while 62 percent of Americans believed the media was "exaggerating the risks" of coronavirus, 70 percent still gave high marks for coverage.

Christina Bellantoni, the director of the Media Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, believes this is the start of something. "As people tune into news more, they'll build up that trust and loyalty to news personalities, and we'll have that Cronkite-feeling again," Bellantoni says. Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization, says crises have tended to help TV news win viewer trust, even if that can be short-lived. "If audiences determine they didn't trust what they saw in the COVID-19 coverage, it will be a short peak indeed," he says. "But with emergencies, TV news usually comes out the other side as having done laudable work. Even President Trump's critique of 'fake' and 'unfair' news hasn't resonated very well. Look at coronavirus protesters. Their signs don't say 'fake news,' they say 'open up the country,' which is very interesting."

Muir says part of the equation is making sure his broadcast tells stories that resonate with folks of varying opinions, so he's determined to cover those who protest lengthy closures of businesses right along with others who warn of the consequences of reopening too quickly. "It's not one side against the other. You just arm them with facts, and that breaks down the anxiety," he says. "In a polarized nation, those who report the shared concerns will be rewarded. Audiences will come back. There are lots of people who aren't protesting even though they'd like to go back to work and see their children in school again, but they also worry about safety. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle."

Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News who now is working on journalism projects for the MIT Media Lab and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University says that while there may never again "be another 'Uncle Walter, the most trusted man in America' building trust over titillation is what's bringing news to the fore at the moment." Heyward says it is "striking" how local news, in particular, "is staying away from mindless incrementalism. They used to stress recency over relevancy. Not anymore."

What may help broadcast news, as well its cable cousin, keep recent viewers will be the upcoming presidential election and the lasting impact of coronavirus on the nation's pocketbooks. "The economy will take a long time to rebound and people will look for broadcasts that can help them find or keep a job; and the concept of defeating Donald Trump will be must-see TV," says USC's Bellantoni.

Shaylor of CBS adds: "This story will affect our safety, financial well-being, education and our grandparents for a long time. Our viewers will stay with us." The Poynter Institute's Tompkins, though, doubts an era of families gathering to watch the news will make an enduring comeback. He points out that the demographic which is most loyal to TV news and most susceptible to COVID-19 is an elderly one. Still he says, "For many people, this is a reintroduction to a habit of watching TV news each night that they have gotten away from. And there is a chasm to fill as newspapers cut back and some in rural areas shut down."

CBS' Heyward predicts numbers for cable news will revert back to normal levels over time, but broadcasters will experience a lasting uptick. "Cable news is a utility that is highly polarizing, which is a good business model," he says. "Broadcast will keep some of its gains as it plays the role of trusted curator of information. Younger audiences are suddenly watching. To keep them, stations must figure out which of their attributes translate best to mobile. It's an opportunity."