NEW YORK — I asked a media-savvy friend recently to guess what is the most-watched program on TV right now.
The other evening news programs — anchored by NBC’s Lester Holt and CBS’s Norah O’Donnell — are also on a roll.
These tightly edited, half-hour broadcasts distill the day’s events, at times providing an austere contrast to President Trump’s daily briefings, which are often airing simultaneously elsewhere.
“The answer to the anxiety people are feeling isn’t to deliver a portrait that is rosier than reality,” Muir told me this week.
ABC is leading the evening-news pack, averaging more than 12 million viewers each night for the past five weeks — more than double the viewership of the most popular prime-time shows on cable, which seem to get so much more media attention. (Hannity’s recent interview with Trump was considered a huge ratings win at more than 5 million.)
I interviewed Muir on a bench just outside Central Park near the ABC News studio, both of us wearing masks and keeping six feet of social distance between us.
Although Muir has a broadcast-ready setup in his West Village home, he’s been making the short trip uptown every day to do the newscast in the eerily deserted ABC studio, along with a skeleton crew.
“It’s a day-to-day decision,” he told me. “But as long as I can come in, I will.”
Muir sees an odd paradox in the importance of being a steady presence for his audience in this moment. His popularity with viewers, he’s convinced, has been built up over years in part by taking them along as he globe-trots — to Iraq for reporting on the Islamic State or to Auschwitz, the site of the former concentration camp in then-occupied Poland, to talk with survivors 75 years after their liberation.
“I’ve always believed in going where the story takes you, to be there and breathe it in,” he said. That has been at the core of what he offers the viewer: Come with me to experience the story.
“But now the inverse is true — the important thing is to stay here and to be in that chair at that set time,” he said. “When the pandemic hits is not the time to try to build up trust. It has to be in the works for a long time.”
Like cable news, all of the evening newscasts tend to attract an older audience for whom it is “appointment viewing,” just before or just after dinner.
But in these strange days, World News Tonight has been doing well with the sought-after audience known as “the demo” — those between ages 25 and 54. The newscast garnered more than 3 million of those relative youngsters during the first week of April.
ABC hopes to keep them around once the emergency fades. Social media is part of that effort: Muir’s recent interview with Bill and Melinda Gates attracted more than half a million social media views, including on Instagram, an ABC News spokesman told me.
I asked ABC News president James Goldston why he put Muir, then only 40, in the anchor chair to succeed Diane Sawyer in 2014. (Longevity is not a given in the TV anchor business; CBS Evening News has had Scott Pelley, Jeff Glor and now O’Donnell in that lead evening-news position since 2017.)
“When Diane said she was ready to step down, it was essentially a non-decision,” Goldston said. Muir — who has been at ABC since 2003 and had been Sawyer’s chief substitute — “was ready, and he glided into the chair.”
In this moment, Goldston thinks Muir’s strengths are serving the network well.
“He brings tremendous empathy,” Goldston said, and has a strong rapport with ABC’s correspondents gathering news in the field.
When the news is difficult to absorb, Muir offers “a natural optimism,” especially evident in the newscasts’ closer, “America Strong,” which visits — and sometimes revisits — individuals who embody courage or otherwise warm the heart.
I asked Muir whether he has a particular kind of viewer in mind when he does the newscast each night.
He mentioned his parents, still living in the Syracuse, N.Y., area, where he grew up, went to public schools and graduated magna cum laude from Ithaca College, before starting his reporting career at WTVH-TV in Syracuse and WCVB-TV in Boston.
“I do think about what won’t waste their time, what will set their mind at ease,” he said, observing that his parents’ reactions to news stories probably affect his approach more than they realize.
While it’s not Muir’s role to dictate coverage, he can influence it, as when he recently called Texas-based correspondent Marcus Moore, who was interviewing people waiting in long lines at a San Antonio food bank.
“I asked him to let them tell their stories while looking into the camera,” Muir recalled, adding that he was grateful to have the kind of working relationship that made such a conversation productive.
Moore’s segment landed with emotion. Out-of-work Texans described how they never imagined themselves needing charity, or, in the case of one father, the pain of not knowing how to answer a child’s question about what’s for dinner.
In a recent assessment of evening news shows, my colleague Hank Stuever, the Post’s TV critic, described the broadcasts as strikingly similar to each other and “almost shockingly neutral” in tone and content.
I asked Muir what exactly “World News Tonight” is trying to do? Is the idea to take things right down the middle, equal time for both sides of every equation, whether valid or not?
Muir said that’s not the aim nor does he think it’s wise. Rather, he hopes to “cut through the noise for the folks at home” and to emphasize common ground: “People do have shared fears and shared concerns.”
In America’s intensely polarized media and political environment that’s food for thought. And there seems to be considerable hunger for it.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan