How Networks, Cable TV Handled New Year's Eve Coverage Amid COVID-19

Ryan Seacrest Ken Jeong

Emceeing their shows from a nearly empty Times Square, hosts like Ryan Seacrest, Billy Porter, Anderson Cooper and more masked up, socially distanced and interviewed essential workers in the sparse audience.

Networks and cable television rolled out slightly different editions of their annual New Year's Eve celebrations in 2020.

Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, ABC, NBC, Fox and CNN aired from a strangely empty Times Square in New York, which was closed to the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as hosts generally expressed eagerness to say goodbye to 2020.

CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live co-hosts Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen pointed out that the few attendees allowed as revelers inside Times Square were essential workers, who were separated from each other by small barriers called "party pods." "In an empty Times Square tonight, here are heroes of 2020," Cooper said at the beginning of the program. (He and Cohen also noted that Planet Fitness had planted some fake tube men in the audience as an advertisement). Like most hosts broadcasting from Times Square on Thursday night, Cooper and Cohen interviewed several of these essential workers over the course of their program.

They cheered to the ongoing vaccine distribution as the co-hosts took their first shot of tequila of the night: "Vaccine's on the way, Zaddy, let's do it," Cohen said, addressing Cooper. Cohen later noted how eerily silent it was for Times Square on New Year's Eve.

Rather than have celebrities join them onstage in New York, famous faces from Regina King to Cindy Crawford appeared via pre-recorded videos to share New Year’s Eve messages to the hosts, reflecting on 2020 and hopes for a far better 2021.

Similar to previous New Year’s Eve broadcasts, Cohen and Cooper enjoyed virtually visiting celebrities in their homes across the country including Patti LaBelle, who displayed a holiday feast in her home, and Carole and Howard Baskin, discussing the popularity of Netflix’s Tiger King along with a stuffed toy tiger.

Other CNN performances and appearances included John Mayer, Snoop Dogg, Jimmy Buffett, Josh Groban, Leslie Jordan, Dulce Sloan, Desus & Mero, Kylie Minogue, Aloe Blacc, Goo Goo Dolls and Jon Bon Jovi.

Ahead of the beloved Times Square ball dropping to ring in the new year, Cohen and Cooper interviewed Mariah Carey. The singer noted that while 2020 has been challenging, she and her family have been finding ways "to exist and be festive" at the end of the year. Carey also shared how working on her AppleTV+ special Mariah Carey's Magical Christmas Special, which featured Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson, was "an incredible moment" and how her recent memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey could be soon adapted into a film.

The singer concluded her interview by wishing for "healing for our country and for the world" in 2021.

Over on Fox, Ken Jeong and Joel McHale teamed up to host a "Toast & Roast" of 2020 to welcome in the new year. With no live audience and few in-person interviews, all of the claps to the co-hosts' jokes came from a panel of audience members video-conferencing in live from other locations. Kelly Osbourne, meanwhile, reported from the ground in Times Square while double-masked.

Many of the show's guests, including John Legend and Carole Baskin, beamed in from other locations, rather than attending in person (David Guetta notably performed from the front of the Louvre in Paris). During several remote performance segments, a small video window popped up onscreen featuring the panel of audience members or McHale and Jeong reacting to the song. Other guests performed from the same stage as Jeong and McHale and socially distanced from the hosts.

Backstage, the show featured "a limited crew on the production side on the main stages," Carol Donovan, the executive producer of the special, said in a statement. She added that safety measures that were implemented included enlisting outside sanitation teams to clean, bringing in a UV fan to recirculate air, having 25 bathrooms on site, hiring a medical consulting company to oversee COVID protocols, banning eating allowed on set and requiring daily testing, among other measures. Donovan said, "We sort of amped up everything we could in light of what’s going on in order to keep everyone safe."

Ryan Seacrest, Billy Porter and Lucy Hale hosted ABC's Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve from Times Square on Thursday, while Ciara hosted from Los Angeles and Big Freedia hosted from New Orleans. (The Hollywood Reporter and Dick Clark Productions are both owned by parent company MRC.) As the New York hosts moved through the Times Square audience of essential workers, they wore masks, and when interacting with performers, they stayed about six feet apart. Meanwhile, the show's main stage in Times Square was framed by a layer of beach balls (positioned where an audience would normally stand) to maintain social distancing.

Introducing the L.A. segment of the show, Ciara noted of all performers and guests in the venue, "Each and every person has been COVID tested and is wearing a mask." A few audience members were on the scene, masked and standing around bar tables. In New Orleans, host Big Freedia was joined by a masked audience that was frequently filmed dancing.

Towards the end of the show, Seacrest interviewed president-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, who offered praise for America's essential workers. "My mother used to have an expression, she said, 'Bravery resides in every heart and someday it will be summoned,'" the president-elect said. "The people we're celebrating tonight, it was summoned and they were brave. They did so much."

When Seacrest asked the Bidens about their hopes for 2021, Joe Biden responded, "I'm more optimistic about America's chances than I've ever been, and I've been around this for a while. ... I am absolutely positive, confident, that we're going to come back and come back stronger than we were before."

On "NBC's New Year's Eve," Carson Daly, Amber Ruffin and Stephen "tWitch" Boss co-hosted a broadcast that included both live and pre-taped performances from Chloe x Halle, Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani, Jason Derulo, Goo Goo Dolls, Kylie Minogue and Sting featuring Shirazee, among others. "I'm ready to say so long, farewell 2020 like a Von Trapp child at a cocktail party," Ruffin said as she and Daly kicked off the program.

Without a live audience, the NBC coverage featured a "party cam" showing a panel of families partying from their own homes. And while Daly and Ruffin hosted from a studio overlooking Times Square, Boss masked up and engaged with essential workers on the ground. At one point, Boss caught up with Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse in New York City and the first U.S. citizen to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. "I am very excited and hopefully and just happy to turn over a new leaf," Boss said of 2021.