Jen Psaki slipped into the studio with seconds to spare. 

It was the evening of Nov. 1, a week before the 2022 midterm elections, and the NBC News political unit (not to mention its contributors, like the former White House press secretary) were in overdrive. Just a few minutes earlier Psaki had been in a remote studio appearing on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC program, now she had rushed downstairs to the NBC Washington bureau’s ground floor studio, where she joined anchors Chuck Todd and Kristen Welker as part of a primetime special to tee up the midterms. 

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The network pulled out all of 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 at his signature touch screen. 

It was a production worthy of primetime … but it didn’t air on TV at all. The special was planned and produced specifically 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 age 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 Meet the Press miss this streaming moment, where arguably, there’s a whole bunch of TV that missed the cable moment back in the 80s and 90s,” Todd told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. “I think the mistake I didn’t want to make that I saw others do whenever they try to go into a new space is don’t do a half-assed job. Don’t do it as a one-off.” 

“At launch, we made a commitment that it wasn’t going to be sort of second fiddle, it wasn’t going to be the B-Team, it was going to be brand name, NBC News talent, delivering the same journalism that you would see on the Today show, or Nightly News. And we decided to make it free,” NBC News president Noah Oppenheim says. “And to distribute it as broadly as possible in an effort to reach as many eyeballs as we could, right out of the gate.” 

It was that commitment to producing a top-quality production that brought Todd, the moderator of NBC’s Sunday public affairs show Meet the Press, and Welker, NBC White House correspondent and Weekend Today co-anchor, to the ground floor studio Nov. 1 at NBC’s still-new Washington D.C. bureau, which opened its doors last year, just weeks after the Jan. 6 riot. 

Where the old bureau was tucked away in a sleepy, leafy corner of D.C. near American University, the new bureau is in the middle of the bustle of Capitol Hill. While a visitor to the Today show studio in New York could watch the morning show through its ground-floor windows in the shadow of Rockefeller Plaza, visitors watching through the glass windows of the D.C. studio are practically in the shadows of the Capitol Building itself. 

During the primetime special, with election night a week away, the wall of screens in the control room upstairs highlighted the small army of correspondents in the field, from Shaq Brewster in Wisconsin to Dasha Burns in Pennsylvania. 

“We lean so hard into our correspondents because we’re committed to a traditional approach to journalism. So you know, it’s not about people pontificating with a particular point of view, it’s about good old fashioned reporting,” Oppenheim says. “The days of waiting until an evening newscast or a morning show are over, if a reporter breaks news, they break news in real time, and they want to get it out as soon as it can be properly vetted.” 

Meet the Press Now

The control room during the Meet the Press Nov. 1 primetime special. NBC News/Shannon Finney Photography

“The point is, it’s not a side project. This is a full network,” adds Janelle Rodriguez, a senior vp at NBC News and the head of NBC News Now. “Given the way the technology has moved, particularly with the proliferation of smart TVs, and just how easy it is to access the various streaming platforms, I think most of the audience at home just looks at it as content, right? … they just look at it as I’m watching the news, or I’m watching sports, or I’m watching YouTube videos, wherever it may be. And so you have to be really great in that space. So that’s how we approach it. This needs to be the very best of NBC News at any given moment.” 

It’s also a matter of accessibility. The changing TV environment means that fewer homes have easy access to NBC News linear programming, which is predominantly available through a pay-TV package, or via a broadcast antenna. 

For journalists that are focused on informing the public, making that journalism accessible is critical. 

“Chuck and I are very concerned about also making sure that [our journalism] extends to all age groups,” Welker says. “My mom’s a big viewer … we really want to make sure that this is accessible to people, you know, across all age ranges, and so I see it as an incredible opportunity.” 

And in a world where high-quality journalism is increasingly becoming siloed into discrete paywalled offerings, that accessibility is all the more important. 

“I fear all these velvet ropes going up right now whether it’s on The New York Times, The Washington Post or other places that want for streaming news to charge people,” Todd adds. “Our news and journalism needs to be a public service.” 

And public service was ultimately the purpose of the Nov. 1 special: To prepare streaming news consumers for Tuesday’s midterm elections, catering to the political junkies looking for the latest analysis, but also more casual news consumers that haven’t been following the polls. 

To that end, the pre-election special made a point of noting the races they expect to call 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 to set expectations so that people aren’t confused if those outcomes do occur on election night, which are quite possible.”

“We’re not just talking about theories,” she adds. “We saw this play out in 2020. And we could see it play out again in this midterm election night.” 

Setting those expectations could be important, not just for the broadcast, but for the country. 

Todd, for example, laid out “nightmarish” scenarios, where “conditions could be created for lots of conspiracy theories.” 

“Look, I’m working really hard on election night to make sure I can give people the House races to follow that we can call on election night. Or within the first eight hours so that people can get a sense of what’s going to happen,” Todd says, noting that on election night the only swing senate seat that might get called is New Hampshire. 

NBC News plans to start its midterm streaming coverage at 6 p.m., with Hallie Jackson and Tom Llamas anchoring. 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 post-election night extended period of vote counting that is where the potential problems lie, and why Welker and Todd were so careful to try to manage expectations ahead of time in their special. 

“There’s a ton of dangerous misinformation disinformation around the voting process in this country, but all of our reporting suggests that the election worked exactly as it was supposed to in 2020,” Oppenheim says. “All of our reporting so far has uncovered no reason to believe it won’t work exactly as it is supposed to, on Tuesday night, and we just need to explain to our audience that the old expectation of an immediate result on election night needs to be discarded. And that does not mean that there’s something wrong.” 

But the “contentious” nature of the vote-counting period could lead to unpredictable outcomes. 

“I hope this country can handle close elections, because we’re going to have them for probably another decade,” Todd says. 

Either way, the goal for NBC News is to cater to news consumers that aren’t being served by traditional linear platforms, but want the same journalism they could expect on broadcast. 

Rodriguez says that it is nights like election night that help define the platform, introducing it to new viewers, but also permanently altering its daily audience. 

“When there is a big breaking news event people come find us,” Rodriguez says. “And every time we have a major breaking news event, like the invasion of Ukraine, January 6, the 2020 election, 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 go up there after. So we start with one baseline of audience and then a massive breaking news event happens, we get a major spike.” 

And with a contentious state of politics all but assured for the next decade or longer, the need for that style of journalism is only going to become more essential. 

Source: Hollywood

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