Jen Psaki slipped into the studio with only a few seconds left.
It was the evening of November 1, a week before the 2022 midterm elections, and NBC News’ political unit (not to mention its staff, such as the former White House press secretary) was in overdrive. Just minutes before, Psaki had been in a remote studio appearing on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC program, now she’d run down to the ground-floor studio of the NBC Washington bureau, where she joined the anchors Chuck. Todd and Kristen Welker joined as part of a primetime special to tee up the midterms.
The network pulled out all the stops, with 11 correspondents appearing live from across the country, panelists including Psaki, Senator Claire McCaskill and former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, and Steve Kornacki analyzing key races on his signature touchscreen.
It was a production worthy of primetime…but it didn’t air on TV at all. The special was specially planned and produced for streaming on NBC News Now, the news division’s streaming service.
It’s all part of a strategy to keep NBC News relevant in an era of declining linear TV viewership, with Roku boxes and Amazon Fire sticks becoming the way consumers get their TV fix, rather than the cable box or antenna.
“I really didn’t want to see it” Meet the press miss this streaming moment, where arguably a whole slew of TVs missed the cable moment in the 80s and 90s,” Todd told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. “I think the mistake I didn’t want to make and that I’ve seen others make when they try to enter a new space is that they don’t do a half-hearted job. Don’t do it once.”
“At launch, we promised it wouldn’t be second fiddle, that it wouldn’t be the B-Team, but a brand name, NBC News talent, would deliver the same journalism you’d see on the Today show, or Nightly news. And we’ve decided to make it free,” said NBC News president Noah Oppenheim. “And to spread it as widely as possible in an effort to reach as many eyeballs as possible, right out of the gate.”
It was that commitment to produce a top quality production that brought Todd, the moderator of NBC’s Sunday Public Affairs show. Meet the pressand Welker, NBC White House correspondent and Weekend today co-anchor, to the ground-floor studio on Nov. 1 at NBC’s still-new Washington DC bureau, which opened its doors last year, just weeks after the Jan. 6 riots.
Where the old desk was tucked away in a sleepy, leafy corner of DC near American University, the new desk sits amid the bustle of Capitol Hill. While a visitor to the Today show studio in New York was able to watch the morning show through the windows on the ground floor in the shadow of Rockefeller Plaza, visitors looking through the glass windows of the DC studio are practically in the shadow of the Capitol itself.
During the prime-time special, with election night a week away, the wall of screens in the control room above highlighted the small army of correspondents in the field, from Shaq Brewster in Wisconsin to Dasha Burns in Pennsylvania.
“We rely so heavily on our correspondents because we are committed to a traditional approach to journalism. So you know, it’s not about people taking a particular stance, it’s about old-fashioned reporting,” Oppenheim says. “The days of waiting for an evening news or a morning show are over. When a reporter brings news, they bring the news in real time and want to get it out as soon as it can be properly vetted.”
“The point is, it’s not a side project. This is a full network,” added Janelle Rodriguez, senior VP at NBC News and head of NBC News Now. “Given the way technology has evolved, especially with the proliferation of smart TVs, and how easy it is to access the various streaming platforms, I think most of the audience at home just sees it as content, However? … they just watch it while I watch the news, or I watch sports, or I watch YouTube videos, wherever it is. And so you have to be really great in that space. So that’s how we approach it. This has to be the very best of NBC News at all times.”
It is also a question of accessibility. With the changing TV environment, fewer and fewer households have easy access to NBC News linear programming, which is primarily available through a pay-TV package or broadcast antenna.
For journalists who are focused on informing the public, it is crucial to make that journalism accessible.
“Chuck and I are very concerned to ensure that [our journalism] extends to all age groups,” says Welker. “My mom is a big viewer… we really want to make sure this is accessible to people, you know, across all age groups, and so I see it as an incredible opportunity.”
And in a world where high-quality journalism is increasingly locked in discreet paywalls, that accessibility is all the more important.
“I’m afraid all these velvet ropes are going up now, whether it’s on The New York Times, The Washington Post or other places that want to stream news to make people pay,” adds Todd. “Our news and journalism should be a public service.”
And public service was ultimately the goal of the Nov. 1 special: Preparing streaming news consumers for Tuesday’s midterm elections, targeting the political junkies seeking the latest analysis, as well as more casual news consumers who don’t have the polls. followed.
To that end, the pre-election special made a point to note the races they expect to hold on election night… as well as the races that are likely to drag on for days or even weeks.
Welker says they want to “help set expectations so people don’t get confused when those outcomes come out on election night, which is entirely possible.”
“We’re not just talking about theories,” she adds. “We saw this happen in 2020. And we could see it play out again on this midterm election night.”
Setting those expectations can be important, not just for the broadcast, but for the country as well.
Todd, for example, has created “nightmare-like” scenarios, in which “conditions can be created for numerous conspiracy theories.”
“Look, I work really hard on Election Night to make sure I can give people the House Races that we can follow on Election Night. Or within the first eight hours, so people can get a sense of what’s going to happen,” said Todd, pointing out that New Hampshire is the only Senate seat that can be called up on election night.
NBC News plans to begin streaming at 6 p.m. on the medium term, with Hallie Jackson and Tom Llamas at anchor. At 8 p.m., the streaming platform will simulcast the same programming on the NBC broadcast network, led by Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Todd, continuing as needed.
And it’s that extended vote counting period after election night that’s where the potential problems lie, and why Welker and Todd were so careful about trying to manage expectations ahead of time in their special.
“There is a lot of dangerous misinformation about the voting process in this country, but all our reports suggest that the elections went exactly as they should be in 2020,” Oppenheim said. “All our coverage to date has found no reason to believe that Tuesday night will not work exactly as it should, and we just need to explain to our public that the old expectation of an immediate result on election night is needed. be thrown away. And that doesn’t mean anything is wrong.”
But the “controversial” nature of the vote-counting period can lead to unpredictable results.
“I hope this country can handle the close elections because we’ll probably have them for another ten years,” Todd said.
Either way, the goal of NBC News is to serve news consumers who aren’t served by traditional linear platforms, but want the same journalism they’d expect from broadcasting.
Rodriguez says it’s nights like Election Night that help define the platform, introduce it to new viewers, but also permanently change the everyday audience.
“When there’s a big news event, people come to see us,” Rodriguez says. “And every time we have a big news event, like the invasion of Ukraine, January 6, the 2020 elections, a hurricane, we see a huge spike in audience, similar to what the patterns would be on cable news. But then we see the base of our audience move up after that. So we start with one audience baseline and then a big news event happens, we get a big spike. ”
And with a controversial state of politics almost certain to last for the next decade or more, the need for that style of journalism is only going to become more essential.