“Having dueling town halls is bad for democracy — voters should be able to watch both and I don’t think many will,” Couric wrote on Twitter

By Maria Pasquini
October 15, 2020 01:14 PM
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Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump

NBC is facing widespread criticism — including from former executives and anchors like Katie Couric — after scheduling a town hall with President Donald Trump on the same night and in the same time slot as a separate town hall for former Vice President Joe Biden.

The news came less than a week after the second presidential debate was canceled following Trump’s refusal to agree to a virtual event in light of his novel coronavirus diagnosis and subsequent three-day hospitalization.

In the immediate aftermath of the cancellation, Biden’s campaign said the former vice president, 77, would instead participate in an ABC News town hall event on Thursday night.

Days later, NBC News announced that Trump, 74, would participate in his own town hall that same night, setting up a head-to-head ratings battle.

Many critics of the town hall scheduling, a number of whom are either current or former NBC employees, have pointed out that the programming move seems to favor the president, who often obsesses over ratings, after he declined to participate in the second debate with Biden.

The time slot competition means voters who tune in will have to make a choice of who to watch first and whether to catch up with the other town hall at a later time.

And while Biden’s 90-minute event will air on ABC, Trump’s 60-minute town hall will be additionally simulcast on MSNBC and CNBC, increasing its reach.

“Having dueling town halls is bad for democracy — voters should be able to watch both and I don’t think many will,” former Today show anchor Katie Couric wrote on Twitter. “This will be good for Trump because people like to watch his unpredictability. This is a bad decision.”

Meanwhile Cheryl Gould, a former executive vice president for NBC News, said she was “disgusted” by the network’s decision. “Is this what the new leadership at NBC thinks is the right thing to do? To be complicit in Trump’s tantrum? A shameless grab for ratings!”

Added Vivian Schiller, who previously worked as chief digital officer at NBC News, "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."

And former NBC late-night host Conan O'Brien also jabbed at the decision, in a sarcastic reference to his own issues at the network while succeeding Jay Leno: "I can’t remember the last time I was this shocked by an NBC programming decision."

In response to the criticism, the chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, Cesar Conde, said in a statement that "our decision is motivated only by fairness, not business considerations."

While Conde said that NBC shared "the frustration that our event will initially air alongside the first half" of Biden's town hall, he said the network had no choice but to offer Trump a time slot and format for his NBC appearance that matched Biden's NBC town hall last week.

"If we were to move our town hall with President Trump to a later time slot we would be violating our commitment to offer both campaigns access to the same audience and the same forum," Conde said.

He noted that the NBC town hall will be available for later viewing across online platforms, "any time, free and on-demand."

A network source added that the Trump campaign did not have final say on the timing or format of his town hall.

On scheduling, the source said that there were few options for dates and Thursday had already been set aside by Trump because of the now-canceled second debate. (A final debate, on Oct. 22, remains scheduled.)

Shakina Nayfack, an actress and transgender activist who stars on NBC’s Connecting, also slammed the network.

“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. Don’t praise yourselves for putting a trans woman on primetime then give a platform to someone who wants to abolish my rights,” she wrote on Twitter, adding that the “days leading up to the election should be about the exchange and comparison of ideas and policy, not ratings and stoking division.”

In another post, director Paul Feig, whose show Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is currently airing on NBC, wrote that although the network has been "very generous & supportive of us ... giving Trump a platform against his opponent on the night of the canceled debate when Trump was the one who pulled out is really effed up."

Rachel Maddow raised the backlash during Wednesday's episode of The Rachel Maddow Show, which airs on MSNBC, asking democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris if she was “as mad as everybody else” about NBC’s town hall.

"I'm not touching that," Sen. Harris replied, although she later added, "I know who I'll be watching."

During another Wednesday broadcast, CNN's Don Lemon asked how the competing events "help the American people."

“How does that inform the electorate, by putting those two people on at the same time and making people choose from one to the other?" he continued. "And don’t give me that BS about ‘Well, you can tape one.’ That’s not what this is about."

Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump
| Credit: Ryan Pierse/Getty; GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty

NBC previously said it received a statement clearing Trump for the event, from Dr. Clifford Lane, the clinical director at the National Institutes of Health.

Lane said in his note that he and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert and an NIH director, had reviewed Trump’s medical status and determined "with a high degree of confidence" that Trump was "not shedding infectious virus."

As far as safety precautions, NBC said Trump and town hall host Savannah Guthrie will sit 12 feet apart from each other and the audience, who will be required to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines.