Behind ABC's Broadcast Coverage of the First Presidential Debate

ABC News
Courtesy of ABC News

With a massive expected audience to hear about urgent topics from COVID-19 to the Supreme Court, tonight’s first 2020 Presidential Debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden has broadcasters preparing extensive coverage and analysis while incorporating coronavirus safety procedures.

"The interest level is off the charts. The blockbuster story [surrounding President Trump’s tax returns] The New York Times broke on Sunday only increased interest," senior executive producer of special events at ABC News Marc Burstein said on Tuesday.

For ABC News, tonight’s three-hour primetime lineup includes live debate coverage led by George Stephanopoulos from New York City joined by World News Tonight anchor David Muir and ABC News Live Prime anchor Linsey Davis.

A live one-hour special, Trump vs. Biden: The Main Event - A Special Edition of 20/20, proceeds the debate at 8:00 p.m.ET on ABC, with topics including how early voting might impact the election. Burstein, who has worked on every series of Presidential Debates since 2000, noted that the network "never had the [pre-show] hour before to break down the issues. I’m really proud; it will provide a great service for the viewers."

Following the debate, ABC News’ political team will provide context and analysis. The digital offing includes ABC News Live, which begins coverage at 7 p.m. ET on the network’s streaming news channel and will continue after the simulcast of the network's three-hour debate coverage concludes.

The broadcast involves procedures that ABC News has already employed for coverage of many live events since the pandemic began, including the recent Democratic and Republican National Conventions. “We have this new workflow down. It’s not easy but we didn't have to reinvent the wheel for tonight,” explains Burstein. “Our engineering crew deserves a medal.”

He says this isn't notably different from pre-pandemic live broadcasts, but they are doing their work with fewer crew members (some working remotely from home) and while incorporating all safety procedures including testing and masks to social distancing.

Stephanopoulos and the news anchors will be on camera in New York, maintaining safe distance as they did for the convention coverage. Chief White House correspondent and This Week co-anchor Jonathan Karl and senior Congressional correspondent and lead campaign correspondent Mary Bruce will be reporting from Cleveland. Others from the political team will appear from Washington and other ABC News bureaus.

"There are some changes and restrictions, but we usually anchor the debate from the New York studio," Burstein says. He explains that ABC News now uses two control rooms instead of one, each with half the typical number of crew members in order to maintain a safe six-feet distance from one another. "Everyone has been tested in Cleveland, and there are fewer people," he adds of the debate site.

He notes that for those working from home, procedures were put in place months ago to allow the team to collaborate and event see the control room, using a remote workflow.

Burstein, who has been involved in every series of presidential debates since 2000, notes that this is the first year the network planned an advance hour of programming to examine the issues. "I’m really proud. It will provide a great service for the viewers."

Adds ABC News Live executive producer Katie Den Daas, "We got into the business to defend and support democracy. It's great to do that for our streaming audience in this critical moment in American history."