Jul 14, 2020
“People have rediscovered us in a way, and I think they will continue to watch.”
Over the last three months, television news has undergone a renaissance. Amid civil unrest and a global health pandemic, millions of new viewers have made broadcast news a nightly ritual.
Beginning in mid-March, there was a ratings surge for the CBS Evening News and the other U.S.-based nightly broadcasts, which includes ABC’s World News Tonight and NBC’s Nightly News. In the six weeks following March 16, viewership across the three programs increased 39% year-over-year. It’s the first time in more than a decade that the shows drew such consistently large viewership.
“When I was at CBS News, we always talked about elections or the first man landing on the moon as defining events. This is another defining event,” explains Adam Clayton Powell III, Director of Washington Programs at USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy and a veteran of CBS News. “People have discovered that at 6:30 p.m., they can turn to a trusted source...and as a result have discovered [CBS’] Norah O'Donnell."
"People have discovered that at 6:30 p.m., they can turn to a trusted source…and as a result have discovered [CBS’] Norah O’Donnell."
Adam Clayton Powell III
Director of Washington Programs at USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy
Viewership also had a notable increase during the first week in June in the aftermath of George Floyd's death and the worldwide protests for racial justice it prompted. There was a particular uptick in younger viewers, who are most desired by advertisers, with audiences between 25 and 54 years old increasing 12% on average from the prior week, according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day numbers. For the CBS Evening News with Norah O'Donnell, the ratings spike comes right as O’Donnell marks one year as anchor and managing editor of the newscast — the anniversary falls on July 15.
The broadcast's total viewers between mid-March and mid-June climbed an average of more than a million from last year. During the same time, viewership in the coveted 25-54 demo rose 30%.
“People are craving information and understanding in a very chaotic time, and they recognize that we deliver and will continue to deliver exactly that,” says Jay Shaylor, executive producer of the CBS Evening News. “They’ve rediscovered us, and I think they will continue to watch.”
Innovating the Evening News Format
To address the information needs of audiences, the CBS Evening News made several swift programming updates. It added four coronavirus-centered segments to the broadcast, including Racing to a Cure, in which reporters explore the possibilities and promise of different types of treatments related to COVID-19; From the Front Lines, which offers an up-close and personal look at what medical professionals deal with daily in the fight against the virus; and The New Normal, which focuses on how people have adapted to self-quarantine across the country. There’s also the CBS News division-wide series called Financial Fallout that delves into the economic impact on the virus.
"I'm hopeful that new storytelling forms will come out of this time. I think there's a lot of creativity going on."
Dean of Hofstra University's Lawrence Herbert School of Communication
“The thing about this story is that it's so multi-faceted,” says Shaylor. “It affects so many different aspects of American life, from the way you buy your groceries, to the restaurant down the street, to when taxes are due, to when you will go back to work and how will you go back to work. It’s a story that is going to dominate American life for more than the foreseeable future.”
In addition, the CBS Evening News gives viewers the ability to text O’Donnell about what stories they’re interested in and what information they feel they need. The feedback has resulted in full segments on the broadcast. For example, after multiple people asked about why their relief checks hadn’t arrived, the team investigated, and a piece explaining the hold-up aired on April 27.
“We have been able to innovate the evening news format,” says Shaylor. “Norah's strength as an interviewer — as someone who is willing to ask tough and fair questions — has really helped us cut through the noise and get people the answers they need. We have done far more interviews with key players than traditional newscasts have ever done. We continue to focus on those areas where we're seeing changes that affect how people live their lives and move forward.”
“I'm hopeful that new storytelling forms will come out of this time. I think there's a lot of creativity going on, in a variety of ways,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, Dean of Hofstra University's Lawrence Herbert School of Communication and former news producer and journalist.
Nightly newscasts, like the CBS Evening News, also offer audiences information from multiple angles in a way that Twitter, Facebook, and even cable news networks can’t compete with, says Lukasiewicz.
“Cable news, in particular, is equal parts information and entertainment for many viewers. Once you're in the middle of a pandemic, then entertainment is a little less important. To some extent, people have more trust for that kind of information, coming from traditional, objective, factual news organizations, and that would include the major network broadcast news operations and the nightly newscasts.”
Adapting to Remote Production
To adjust to the limitations of the pandemic, remote production became standard for the CBS Evening News. Phone calls, emails, and Zoom meetings replaced in-person interviews. Producers who previously worked alone were paired in teams of two, helping them overcome the lack of resources created by being out of the office.
Access to the broadcast’s Washington, D.C. newsroom, control room and studio was limited to Norah O’Donnell and a few members of the team. Staffers who work in the office are screened by a nurse remotely each day, wear masks, and practice social distancing. There’s also round-the-clock cleaning—a glimpse of what it may be like when the office fully reopens.
"The pandemic has changed the way everyone works. We’re no exception."
Executive Producer of "CBS Evening News"
“The pandemic has changed the way everyone works. We're no exception,” explains Shaylor. “For a business that requires an extreme amount of collaboration, idea-sharing and discussion, it's tough to work remotely, but we're finding a way to do it. We’ve adapted how we work and communicate.”
Shaylor added: “We view what we do as an important public service. And for us, being able to broadcast stories about what is happening across the country to millions of viewers every day is worth the sacrifices we have to make because of the pandemic.”
For now, surging infection rates in several states suggest that viewership patterns for the nightly news will continue to develop in new ways. But, for the CBS Evening News, the mission remains the same.
“Our sense of urgency about covering these stories will not diminish,” says Shaylor. “When people tune in at 6:30, they're always going to be able to get a good understanding of what's happened or changed in the world that day.”
The "CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell" airs every weeknight on CBS across all U.S. time zones and streams on CBSN.