ABC's David Muir Is Trying to "Remain Calm and Steady" During Pandemic

David Muir - Publicity - H 2020
ABC News

'World News Tonight' has been the top-rated show in all of American television for three weeks this month, averaging nearly 11 million viewers per night.

Over the last few weeks, broadcast news shows have had something of a renaissance, with information-hungry viewers turning to them in record numbers amid the devastating spread of the novel coronavirus.

The ABC News program World News Tonight With David Muir has been at the top of the heap, attracting record audiences that far surpass the competition.

The show has led all of American television in viewership for three out of four weeks this month, averaging nearly 11 million total viewers each night.

Amid the devastation in New York City, Muir is still anchoring the show every night from an almost-empty ABC newsroom. He's hosted three primetime specials on the pandemic, including one on Monday night that featured an interview with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Muir, who has anchored the show since 2014, from his home in New York City.

Have you thought about leaving New York City and doing the show remotely?

We do have sort of a makeshift studio ready to go, and we practiced it the last three weekends. So, we're prepared, and it's sort of a day-by-day assessment. Right now, I work from home for much of the day, and I'm in contact with the producers all day long, and I go in late in the afternoon because we're all trying to limit any kind of interaction. But I'll be honest with you: When I go in and I walk down those hallways to get to the set, it's eerily quiet in the building. The doors are closed and you're immediately reminded that producers are working from home, or they closed the doors and they're working in isolation in their offices or in their edit rooms. Everyone — everyone — is committed, but to be honest with you, I miss them because I think that interaction is normally a huge part of what brings a broadcast together at night. But these are different times, so I make that walk up to the studio not really seeing anyone other than the floor director who is standing in the studio with me every night. 

Is doing the show more logistically challenging with fewer people on-hand?

I will say this: We have done the broadcast from so many locations around the country and around the world these last few years that this team is trained to work together remotely, and all of that practice, if you will, along the way, I think, has helped to prepare us for this moment. We do conference calls where everyone dials in from their closed offices in the building that remain at ABC, and the most important call is the one about an hour before air because everything is coming at us at lightning speed, and it almost doesn't matter where producers and reporters are calling from as long as we all have that moment to sort of communicate and get on the same page right before we go on the air. This is my work family, but we all recognize this is the way it has to be done, and we'll be doing it this way, I'm sure, for many weeks to come.

How many people are actually with you on-set at this point?

There is one floor director who stands at a distance and one writer who sits off at a distance as well, and then I have my own laptop right next to me on the set, so that I'm crafting what I say going into each one of those pieces right up until the moment we go on the air and often during the newscast, because there has been news on this right up until the moment we go on the air and often straight through the newscast.

I really do believe that in this moment we cannot contribute to the noise that's out there. We have to find a way to sort of cut through it all, to stay calm and steady. And there is a real anxiety in this country, and I think that part of our role is to find a way to ease that anxiety, and I think that's by simply sticking to the facts, no matter how difficult they might be. Because I think when people are armed with information, even if it's dire, it can't help but to bring down that anxiety level. The more careful we are, and the more measured we are, the better the chance that we can contribute in some small way every night to sort of reducing that anxiety. I really do believe that's the only way we're all going to get through this together. None of us will ever forget this once we get to the other side. 

With journalism playing such an essential role right now in informing the public, have you felt a greater responsibility in anchoring the show every night on such a large platform?

I think you do feel a responsibility. I mean, I do most of my work from home during the day, and we're on the phone multiple times a day. But then I take that quick trip to ABC in the late afternoon. On my most recent trip, just outside the window was a blaring ambulance racing by, and you don't need anything other than that to remind you what the responsibility we have as a team in this moment is. Because you know those ambulances are racing to the next person who's in dire need. And I do think, in our culture and in our society, there is such saturation, and there has been for quite some time now — so many outlets for people to find what they're looking for — that this is one of those rare moments, rare collective moments, where we are experiencing something together. And in that way, I think the responsibility is even greater. As long as we, every night, remember to thank those who are truly on the front lines, I think it helps to keep the story in proper perspective. It's an unprecedented moment.

How have your day-to-day habits changed in terms of cleanliness and hygiene?

I think I'm not unlike anybody else in the country who is washing their hands multiple times a day and trying to keep interaction at a minimum. It's why I go to ABC so late in the afternoon for the past several weeks. The streets are deserted, and it really lands when you walk into ABC and down eerily quiet hallways with doors closed and few people who are at work. And I literally walk up to that desk alone, but I know that I'm not alone, because everyone's working from home, and working from their offices, working from the edit bays all with their doors closed. And, in some strange way, I know that despite feeling alone, that we're all in this together. And by that I don't mean just the team that is putting together the broadcast, but everybody at home. I think that we all realize that we're going to look back at this moment as a defining moment in our lifetimes, and it's hard to take a breath and think about it in those terms as you're carefully stepping through it every single day with the audience. But we will get to the other side, and we have to make sure that we are calm and steady in the storm every single day.

Why do you think the show has resonated with larger audiences over the last few weeks?

I will say this: When you have viewers placing their trust in you and the team, you have a responsibility to keep going. And to make sure that every single night you're asking the questions that they want asked. And that is really how I frame this whole conversation that I'm having with America every night. Are we asking the questions they're asking at home? Have we expressed in some way their concerns and their fears? And, did we get answers for them today? I think if those are the questions we constantly ask ourselves right up until the moment we air, then hopefully, in some small way, we're playing a part, too, in helping people get through this.

Why do you think that broadcast news shows in particular seem to fit what the American people are looking for from news sources right now?

I am never surprised by the hunger from the American people to be informed and to find a place — they seek out a place in crisis where they can live through it collectively, and hopefully find some comfort. And, if we, in some small way, can play a role in that, then I think that we have done our job on that given day. We all know that the stakes are enormous in this moment, and we all have a role to play.

How physically challenging has this story been to cover for you and the show? 

There's no question in my mind that the team is likely exhausted. But I don't think you'll hear from anyone on the team any complaints about working from home — the stress of this, the exhaustion of this. Because as soon as the news comes on, you see the doctors and the nurses and the health care workers, and you are reminded that they are the ones who are truly putting their lives on the line for this. Our job is to make sure that their voices are heard. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.