Oct 15, 2020 - Economy & Business

NBC under fire for Trump town hall


Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

NBC News is facing backlash, including from some of its own talent and employees, for agreeing to air a town hall with President Trump on Thursday night at the same time that former Vice President Joe Biden will appear at an ABC town hall.

Why it matters: Critics argue that by airing the town hall during ABC's previously scheduled program, Americans won't be able hear from both candidates at the same time.

Catch up quick: Thursday was supposed to be the day of the second presidential debate, which Trump refused to participate in after the Commission for Presidential Debates said it would be done virtually due to his COVID-19 diagnosis.

  • ABC scheduled a town hall with Vice President Biden a week ago, shortly after the president backed out of the second debate. On Wednesday, NBC announced its dueling town hall with President Trump.
  • Reporting from CNN details how the scheduling snafu may have stemmed in part from confusion over which time period the networks would each select for their respective town halls.

Driving the news: More than 100 top NBCUniversal producers and stars have sent a letter to executives at NBCUniversal and its parent company Comcast protesting the timing of the town hall event, per The Hollywood Reporter.

  • Signatories include producer J.J. Abrams and "Law & Order: SVU" star Mariska Hargitay, among others.

Stars had already began protesting publicly shortly after NBC News announced the news on Wednesday.

  • "Shame on @NBC. Y’all sign my checks as of late but I‘m disgusted by my home network giving Trump a platform for fear mongering, bigotry & disinformation," tweeted Shakina Nayfack, star of NBC's comedy show "Connecting."
  • “Are you as mad as everybody else is that NBC is doing a town hall with President Trump tomorrow instead of the debate, at the same time that Vice President Biden’s going to be on ABC?” Rachel Maddow asked Kamala Harris in an on-air interview Wednesday, per Variety. (Harris didn't answer.)
  • The hashtag #BoycottNBC began to pick up steam Wednesday afternoon on Twitter.

Media critics and pundits slammed NBC for what they saw as either a ratings grab or an attempt to curry favor with conservatives.

  • "This is a craven ratings stunt, caving to the Trumpian impulses the network helped hone," tweeted Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.
  • "The point of a news organization is to serve the public. This is the opposite. @NBCNews could literally run this any other day, or any other time. Shameful," tweeted Vivian Schiller, who disclosed in her tweet that she was the former chief digital officer at NBC News.
  • "I don't see NBC's "dueling town halls" move as ratings-driven. It won't be especially lucrative, either. I think it was intimidation. They didn't want to say no to Trump on this. They felt they had to appear fair— in HIS eyes," tweeted media critic Jay Rosen.

The other side: Cesar Conde, Chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group told the Wall Street Journal, “Our decision is motivated only by fairness, not business considerations.”

  • Conde said NBC scheduled its town hall with President Trump at 8 p.m. because it had given the same slot to Vice President Biden in a previous town hall. He notes that a 9 p.m. start time would have still conflicted with ABC's 1.5 hour-long event.

The big picture: Town halls don't typically bring in massive ratings for the networks. But President Trump, who considers ratings a proxy for popularity, will likely publicize the event's ratings if the NBC town hall boasts more viewers than ABC's.

  • Nielsen, the company that's been measuring TV viewership for decades, advised reporters on Thursday against using early and incomplete data leaked from TV networks about the program ratings.
  • At a rally in North Carolina on Thursday, Trump noted that he sees the town hall as an opportunity to get free press. "I figured, what the hell we get a free hour of television. I'm doing it on NBC, the worst, home of sleepy-eyed Chuck Todd and some others," he said as he mocked several of the network's hosts.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is an investor in Axios.

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