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TV news shows reluctantly return to distancing, isolation as virus surges – again

The News Corp. headquarters are pictured here in Manhattan in February.  (Jeenah Moon/For the Washington Post)
By Jeremy Barr Washington Post

There was a time when a permanent return to TV news normal seemed at hand. It was June 14, and the cast of the Fox News panel show “The Five” could not have been more excited. “It’s like the first day back at school,” Greg Gutfeld said then, welcoming back his fellow panelists to the show’s discussion table after 15 months of convening remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The mood was a bit more somber last week when panelist Jesse Watters grudgingly acknowledged a return to distanced punditry and the Brady Bunch effect that comes with it. “So, I think we all have to acknowledge here: We’re in boxes,” Watters said. Amid the massive spread of the coronavirus across the U.S., TV news programs have been nudging back toward the way things were in the spring of 2020, when hosts and anchors either worked from home or – more commonly, this time around – isolated in individual studios.

“Don’t adjust your calendars,” CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota wrote on Instagram this week. “No, it’s not (early 2020) again but, yes, I am back in my own hermetically sealed studio as we wait for this omicron wave to pass. Hope you’re staying positive and testing negative.” It’s a disappointing development for an industry that relies on face-to-face interactions to generate dynamic, watchable television. And it’s not going over well with some hosts.

“We don’t want to be in boxes,” Watters told the Fox News audience Dec. 22. “We hate being in boxes. We resisted being in boxes. We were told to be in a box out of an abundance of caution, just to get us through the holidays.” The shift happened “very quickly,” a TV news executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said. “We see that the world is changing again.”

Amid the outbreak of a highly transmissible virus, rotating guests into a studio to discuss the news in-person carries obvious risks. On the Dec. 15 episode of CNN’s “New Day,” anchor Brianna Keilar sat several feet away from several guests she interviewed throughout the show. Two days later, Keilar went on Twitter and announced that she was experiencing coronavirus symptoms. She said she had received three vaccine doses and was grateful for the protection they were probably providing against serious illness.

“It’s about to be a problem,” said a CNN insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, referring to the riskiness of in-studio interaction amid a deluge of cases. “It’s feeling very much like March 2020 and not almost January 2022. Everyone’s going to have to re-evaluate now.” On Sunday, CBS’ “Face the Nation” hosted an in-person panel discussion, but ABC’s “This Week” did not. “Fox & Friends” made a triumphant return to the show’s “curvy couch” in May after all three hosts got vaccinations but was back in three locations last Wednesday, Brian Kilmeade told viewers, blaming government regulations in New York.

CNN, perhaps more than any other network, was hit hard by the first wave of the pandemic, with anchor Brooke Baldwin out sick for several weeks in April 2020 and returning to tell CNN viewers that her experience with the coronavirus was “like going to hell and back.” Chris Cuomo, who was fired by CNN this month, chronicled his brutal battle with the coronavirus in testimonials for viewers, ending with a theatrical exit from his basement quarantine.

CNN now mandates that employees must be vaccinated to work in offices; over the summer, the network fired three employees for violating the policy. With the explosion of cases following the arrival of the omicron variant, CNN President Jeff Zucker on Dec. 18 sent a memo advising nonessential employees to stay away from the office, echoing guidance other networks have given to their employees.

“We will also be making some changes to studios and control rooms we are using to help minimize the number of people in our spaces,” Zucker said in the memo. Right now, the vast majority of CNN’s shows are produced in individual studios that reduce the number of personnel needed to put programs on the air, a network representative said, and no anchors are broadcasting remotely – a big change from last year.

Some MSNBC anchors and hosts are broadcasting from their normal studios but practicing social distancing, while the majority are working remotely from various locations, a network source said. At ABC News, guests now appear remotely rather than coming to the studio. The network’s late-morning talk show “The View,” which is particularly dependent on in-person banter among co-hosts, has had a rough go of it.

In late September, panelist Whoopi Goldberg made a “historic announcement” that Vice President Kamala Harris would make her first in-studio TV interview appearance a few days later.

Then two hosts clocked positive coronavirus tests (which turned out to be false positives, the show said), were removed from the set mid-show, and Harris appeared remotely instead.

Last month, former “The View” panelist Jedediah Bila was forced to appear on the show remotely because she is not vaccinated, leading to a heated discussion about vaccine mandates. The recent surge in cases has come at a particularly bad time for news networks, which are already down many top broadcasters who are taking time off during the holiday season. On air, “there’s a lot of faces you’ve never seen,” the network executive said.

Some broadcasters, like the flamboyant CNBC host Jim Cramer, have tested positive for the coronavirus but kept broadcasting – albeit from home. Holding up three positive antigen tests for coronavirus for viewers to see, the triple-vaccinated Cramer said last Monday, “I feel so good – I feel like I should go for a run today.”

News anchors and hosts, like many U.S. workers, initially welcomed the flexibility that working from home provides. Dana Perino, the former White House press secretary who is now a Fox News staple, talked publicly about the benefits of broadcasting from a spare room in her Jersey Shore beach home. There are downsides to remote broadcasting, including delays and technical mishaps.

Last week, during “The Five’s” first episode back in “boxes,” network contributor Harold Ford Jr.’s backdrop went black as he spoke. “Hopefully, we’ll be back to a normal table situation when we return from (the) holidays,” Watters said on the broadcast.

But that might not happen.

On Tuesday, the seven-day average for coronavirus cases in the U.S. hit a record high.