Television news is facing the challenge of covering the coronavirus pandemic while grappling with the guidelines imposed to contain the crisis.
Broadcast and cable networks are putting on programs with reduced staffs and producers are working from home as New York, the center of TV news business, is on the verge of a complete shutdown. Viewers can even see the impact on screen as anchors, correspondents and guests are practicing social distancing.
Most guests and contributors are appearing from remote locations outside of studios, some via Skype from their homes.
Audiences are gone too. CNN presented its Sunday debate between 2020 Democratic presidential contenders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in a Washington studio with no cheering crowds and candidate lecterns at a safe distance.
Unlike scripted TV programs and entertainment talk shows which have halted production in response to the crisis, news operations need to stay on the air to disseminate information while also enforcing the measures necessary to keep the COVID-19 outbreak from spreading.
“We are committed to continuing our broadcasts and serving the public without compromising the safety of our employees,” CBS News President Susan Zirinsky wrote in a memo sent to employees on Sunday. “We have continued to solicit specific guidance for CBS News from the New York Department of Health and the CDC and other medical, health and safety experts.”
CBS News has six staffers who have tested positive for the virus — all of whom worked closely together on a recent story — including Seth Doane, who is the network’s Rome correspondent. Doane was well enough to file a first-person account on having the coronavirus, which aired Monday for “CBS This Morning.”
The staff of the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” has been instructed by executive producer Bill Owens to work from home and stay out of the program’s headquarters on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Personnel that does need to enter the building will need to be cleared by management, human resources and security, according to a memo sent to the program’s staff members.
The practice of social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus is being demonstrated on news program sets.
“We are about to connect with you, all of you, in a way that respects what we’re experiencing,” said Fox News “Outnumbered” co-host Harris Faulkner at the opening of her daily panel program.
The camera pulled back to show Faulkner sitting six feet away from co-host Melissa Francis on a large circular couch that usually seats five. The other three guests appeared remotely.
The anchor desk at NBC’s “Today” was sparse as well. On Sunday night, NBC News learned that an employee who works on the third hour of the program tested positive for the virus. Two of the hour’s co-hosts, Al Roker and Craig Melvin, took the day off as a precaution.
“We are fully supporting our colleague, who is experiencing mild symptoms and receiving medical care, and I know you join me in sending our very best for a quick recovery,” NBC News President Noah Oppenheim told employees in a memo distributed Sunday night. “We have been preparing for this possibility and are taking all necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of our teams, which includes multiple deep cleanings of our offices, control room and [the ‘Today’ studio]. Additionally, we are identifying employees who had been in close proximity to the affected employee and... are in the process of asking those who had close contact to self-isolate.”
“Today” co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, who were seated at a distance from each other, noted early on Monday’s program that their on-air colleagues Roker and Melvin are feeling well and attributed their absence to an abundance of caution. “We’re just trying to play exactly by the rules, and we hope and wish that they come back soon,” Kotb said.
The impact of the pandemic on the morning programs will only become more apparent in the coming days and weeks. Cancellations by celebrity guests began last week and will likely accelerate going forward, according to people at the programs who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
News divisions have options if an outbreak occurs within their operations. If a New York studio has to be closed to be cleaned and sanitized, all of the networks have control rooms and facilities in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles they can turn to as an alternative.
CBS aired its morning program out of Washington last week after the first cases among personnel were identified at its broadcast center in New York. The news division’s streaming service CBSN has been using facilities at the network’s owned TV stations in San Francisco and Boston.
NBC News also has the ability to originate programs from London and Englewood Cliffs, N.J., where financial news service CNBC is based.
Networks are stepping up their coverage of well. ABC and NBC added prime-time specials on the coronavirus airing Monday. Fox News Channel is going live 24-hours starting Monday, expanding its 11 p.m. Eastern newscast with Shannon Bream and adding an overnight newscast with Trace Gallagher out of the channel’s Los Angeles bureau.
Fox News has also had its opinion programs dial down the rhetoric from guests and hosts who have played down the pandemic and portrayed media coverage of it as an attack on President Trump. “Fox and Friends” now has a medical expert appearing on the program every day after being a forum where the crisis was once met with skepticism.
On Friday, Fox Business Network host Trish Regan had her nightly show pulled from the air so that staff could be used for covering the volatile stock market during the day. The pro-Trump Regan said last Monday that she believed concerns over the coronavirus were “another attempt to impeach the president.”
But the network is still trying to adjust its tone. Fox News was criticized Sunday after anchor Maria Bartiromo did not challenge Rep. Devin Nunes of California when he told her families should go out to their favorite restaurant or pub for dinner — a statement in direct conflict with directions from the administration’s health officials.
Fox News had an expert on its air Monday - Dr. Nicole Saphier - who hit back at Nunes’ comments. “We want people to just stay in their homes for the betterment of just themselves, their families but also the community,” she said. “We need to get a handle on the spread or else we will be in the same situation as Italy.”