Coronavirus Forces TV News Anchors To Embrace A New Normal: Live From Their Basements

Tony Dokoupil Katy Tur
CBS' Tony Dokoupil and MSNBC's Katy Tur CBS; MSNBC
UPDATED: What was once a necessary novelty of the coronavirus crisis is now the new normal: Across broadcast and cable networks, anchors and reporters appearing on air from their homes in makeshift studios of hastily assembled backdrops and little if any crew.
The need for these unusual arrangements was made ever clear on Tuesday, after CNN anchor Chris Cuomo announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus, and would be doing his nightly Cuomo Prime Time from the basement of his home — quarantined even from his family for the foreseeable future.
But many more personalities, out of an abundance of caution, have set up shop in home basements, libraries, even hallways — a reality of new mandates among news organizations to separate their on-air talent and crews during the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s created some unusual situations among some of the on-air personalities and their families. On Wednesday, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell posted a picture on a set in her living room, with her husband, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, peering from his office at a laptop screen in his own meeting. “Upstairs Downstairs sheltering at home!” she wrote.


“This happened incredibly suddenly,” said Tony Dokoupil of CBS This Morning, who started co-anchoring his show from his basement Monday. “Every news organization in the country two or three weeks ago was going 65 miles an hour down the highway with normal operations, and in these last two weeks slammed on the breaks and made an adjustment across every part of their organization and is now executing editorial under this new normal.”
Just across the room, which they have dubbed the Basement Broadcast Center, his wife Katy Tur has her own set-up for her MSNBC show, and they each have come to assist the other during their broadcasts — something that has invited some gentle ribbing on Twitter and in interviews.
“I have the left side of the room and Tony has the right side of the room, and both have TelePrompters and lighting and the things necessary to go from, honestly the last place I thought I would ever go live from: the basement of my home,” Tur said.
One of the bigger changes came March 18, when Savannah Guthrie began co-anchoring Today from home after she said that she was taking precaution because of a sore throat. She posted a picture of her basement set, with her husband, Mike Feldman, acting as technician.
In the past week, even stricter social distancing mandates have been apparent on air, with anchors no longer sitting next to or even near each other, no in-studio guests and much smaller in-person crews. At their homes, TV personalities have had varying ways of addressing the changes, with some noting the presence of their families while on air, while others have made little or no reference to their new surroundings.

Sandra Smith, co-anchor of America’s Newsroom on Fox News Channel, has been working remotely from home since last week with what she said was a minimal staff — all using Clorox wipes and disinfectant pumps. While the experience has been different without the flurry of activity in studio, “what’s not different is we are three hours of breaking news in the middle of a pandemic. … I’ve been very thankful that we’ve been able to continue anchoring in this way, because it keeps everybody safe, not just me but my crew and my team,” she said.

She has appeared with a backdrop of a TV screen with blue floating geometric patterns — “I’ve tried to keep mine a constant and obviously an important serious background that you would see with me in the studio. I hope that is what everybody sees every day, because you just don’t want that to be part of the story.”
Smith and other news anchors also have put their social isolation and self-quarantines in perspective. “There are certain challenges to broadcast journalism in this way, but it’s really just nothing to what people are going through right now,” she said.
Marc Greenstein, vice president of creative production design for NBC News and MSNBC, said they have done more than two dozen home setups so far, led by their Long Island City team, and most of the time with a small group of engineers who wear protective gear. They have relied on home Internet connections.
“The setup is a little more complicated than a Skype call,” he said, adding that one of the concerns is lighting the makeshift set. The connectivity is via consumer Internet, and the network has built what he calls a “virtual control room” to separate members of a crew.
Most of the troubleshooting can be done remotely, he said, and so far only small things have popped up. “Knock on wood,” he said.
There have been glitches on some shows — Trevor Noah tweeted out a Daily Show segment of some of the flubs — but feedback from viewers have not been complaints about echo-y sound, picture blackouts or unusual lighting. Instead, the audience is concerned about social distancing.
When Tur posted a picture on Twitter earlier this week of Dokoupil going through makeup before his CBS This Morning gig, she got some angry reactions.
“People on Twitter were appalled. ‘How can you have a makeup person in your house?’ What about social distancing?’ ” Tur said.
In fact, the makeup person was really her. The irate commenters “didn’t realize that it was just his wife,” she said.
Their setups required some extra precautions, Tur and Dokoupil said. The basement is accessible by going through a small section of the entry floor, leading to a pocket door that goes to the cellar. Outside crew wear masks and booties, and they have been bleaching areas after visits.
The need for physical separation was especially jarring when a cameraman came to set up equipment. As it turned out, he and Tur were good friends of Larry Edgeworth, the network sound technician who died of the coronavirus.
“The first thing I wanted to do is give [the cameraman] a big hug, and I want a big hug, because we’re going through such a terrible time,” she said. “And you can’t do that. You have to stay six feet away from somebody, and it is really emotionally difficult being in the same space mourning with someone but not being able to be physically near them.”

Dokoupil’s co-anchoring of CBS This Morning still requires a camera operator and sound technician, who wear booties, masks and gloves, but Tur is solo in her afternoon setup.

When they started with the arrangement this week, they very quickly began ribbing each other over the experience on Twitter and in a joint interview.

“I get to enjoy the princely sensation of being like ‘Honey, can you bring me this? Honey can you bring me that?’ ” Dokoupil said as Tur took on some of the chores of a producer and production assistant, like printing scripts and making coffee. But several hours later, the roles were reversed — and Dokoupil says he learned that his wife likes her studio water at room temperature.

Right before Dokoupil goes live, he said he’s been singing from the Wayne’s World soundtrack.

The network had moved production CBS This Morning to the Ed Sullivan Theater on March 19, after employees tested positive for coronavirus. Then, on Monday, the anchors announced that they were separating into different locations.

It’s made some difference.

“Because we have got three of us, and because we are dealing with delays between the three of us, what was spontaneity had become in essence planned spontaneity,” he said. “We had to be like, ‘OK, it is time for Anthony’s spontaneous reaction first, and then Tony will add that second,’ because we realized pretty quickly that if we didn’t have very clear moments, that everyone would take the moment at the same time. None of the cues that you would have face to face are available.”
Tur, who is also an NBC News correspondent, said a challenge has been to convey the severity of the crisis with the images to back it up. She put out a message on Twitter  to “any medical personnel who want to share their experience and give voice to their needs.”
“This is a scenario where for our safety and the safety of everybody, we are told to stay away,” she said. “In normal circumstances it is hard to get in a hospital anyways. But even just being outside a hospital is now made more difficult.”
Dokoupil has gone out for interviews of laid-off workers and of the Army chief of staff, Gen. James McConville, at the hospital set up at the Jacob Javits Center. But he posed questions standing about 10 feet away.
The do-it-yourself nature of on-air anchoring and interviewing is meant to be temporary, but they raise the question of whether networks will start to rely more heavily on remote connections.
Smith, of America’s Newsroom, said that at the very least, there is a backup plan should there be another emergency or crisis. “So I think we are pushing the envelope as far as technology, and I think it’s fair to say that there’s a new normal out there, and you could look that as a positive moving forward,” she said.
Tur thinks viewers still will expect to tune in and see a high-quality picture and people have a conversation face to face.
“Once this crisis is passed, I think people are going to want to hear fluid conversations,” Tur said.
Dokoupil, though, thinks viewers understand the moment and are “incredibly forgiving of the changes,” but that maybe they will crave the way it was.
“I think it is the difference between FaceTiming with a family member, and actually seeing them at a family reunion sharing a burger and a brewsky,” he said.
This post was updated to describe more accurately Andrea Mitchell’s photo of anchoring her MSNBC show from her home while her husband Alan Greenspan was on another floor in a web conference meeting.

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