Broadcast News May Be More Low-Tech Now, But It's Staying on the Story

Vladimir Duthiers CBS News- Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of CBS News

News-side executives from NBC, ABC and CBS talk about how they've kept shows on the air using fewer camera angles, or robotic cameras, and staffers using iPhones and Zoom calls.

Whatever happens, no matter how bad things get, the major three broadcast news networks in the U.S. will not go off the air.

"We will stay on the air. This is our foremost goal," says Wendy Fisher, vp newsgathering, at ABC News.

"We're going to do whatever is necessary to stay on the air, because we believe that we provide such a valuable service," says Kim Godwin, executive vp news, at CBS News. "If we have to do it from someone's living room, we will."

"This is just doing our job in a different way," says Rashida Jones, senior vp NBC News and MSNBC. "Everyone has really come to play, and my hope is that we're able to continue this throughout this pandemic."

Over the last few weeks, television viewers have gotten used to seeing their favorite hosts and anchors broadcasting from their apartments and homes, many in the New York metro area.

In some sense, broadcasting remotely has become the new norm. The final product is a little less polished, a little more low-tech, but all three network executives say that viewers don't seem to mind. That low-tech aesthetic may include fewer camera angles, or robotic cameras, staffers using iPhones and Zoom calls.

Viewers want information at the time they've come to expect it, and they're still getting that, despite the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States.

But, NBC News, ABC News and CBS News — not to mention cable networks MSNBC, Fox News and CNN — have all faced the same challenge: trying to keep the ships running with as few people as humanly possible at their New York headquarters.

"We cannot say it enough: we are most grateful to our colleagues who continue to go into 30 Rock to serve as the crucial backbone for all of these efforts," NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andrew Lack said in a staff memo Friday, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter.

On March 18, CBS News president Susan Zirinsky announced to staffers that network operations would be moved out of the network's Broadcast Center (524 West 57th St.) and 555 West 57th St. buildings "in an abundance of caution" after a total of six staffers had tested positive for the virus. Previously, the network planned to move employees back in after the buildings had been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.

"I think we remain a little bit unique," Godwin said. "We were the first to have to do it, and we did it."

But despite the closures, Godwin said the network still has two or three people coming in — on a rotation — in a master control room in the basement of one of the New York buildings.

NBC News has the same issue. "There are a few core control room roles that have to be done in the physical space, and we're still looking for ways to innovate around that," Jones said.

But Jones said that more than 90 percent of employees based at the 30 Rockefeller Center office building are now working remotely, "and our goal is to continue to find ways to bring that number even higher."

She added, "gradually, as the story got worst, as the threat intensified, we started pulling more of our programming out of the home bases."

The executives also talked about the balance between reporting the news and protecting their employees, which they say is more important.

Fisher said that ABC News executives "revisit" the network's in-person staffing plan on a daily basis.

"It gets more difficult each day, because we're trying to cover this enormous story and also protect our workforce," Fisher said. "Protect them because we're worried about them, but also protect them so that we continue to have a workforce.... We're still going out of the building, we're still covering the story, but we're trying to limit exposure."

"The health of our employees: that's first," Godwin, of CBS News, said. "Everybody knows that. We say it every day.... Once we know we're safe, we have a job to do."

"We're always going to put the people over the production, even if it means changing how we program," Jones said of NBC News. "We're always going to make sure our people are safe."