NBC rebuked for booking Trump town hall opposite Biden's on rival ABC

Calls for #NBCblackout after the network is accused of "caving to the Trumpian impulses the network helped hone"

Published October 18, 2020 7:24PM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

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Entertainers and journalists who have worked with NBC in the past and present were among those who expressed outrage on Thursday over the network's decision to air a town hall event with President Donald Trump, with many critics calling for a viewer "blackout" at the network.

After Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's campaign called for the second presidential debate to be held virtually following Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis earlier this month, the president said the event would be a "waste of time" and the debate was canceled, leading ABC to plan a 90-minute town hall event featuring the former vice president, beginning at 8:00 pm Eastern. 

NBC Universal News Group chairman Cesar Conde announced Wednesday that the network would air its own town hall with Trump beginning at the same time, a decision that's being decried by NBC staffers and media critics as one that plays into the ratings-focused president's hands.

As the Daily Beast reported, critics and employees at the network—the longtime home of Trump's reality shows, "The Apprentice" and "Celebrity Apprentice"—say the president will likely bring high ratings to the network as Americans tune in to watch the spectacle of Trump answering questions and spreading misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and other issues. 

"This decision is not just journalistically incorrect, but morally incorrect," said television writer Nell Scovell. 

Columbia Journalism Review editor Kyle Pope compared the situation to the first presidential debate during which Trump shouted over Biden and Fox News moderator Chris Wallace.

NBC News executives are apparently unconcerned about voters' ability to hear from both candidates as Election Day approaches, Pope tweeted, calling the programming decision "a craving ratings stunt, caving to the Trumpian impulses the network helped hone."

The president promoted his town hall at a rally in Greenville, North Carolina by accusing the network of previously hosting a town hall for Biden that was "a joke," referring to NBC's parent network as "Con-cast," and claiming he's being "set up" by NBCUniversal.

"Excellent programming decision by NBC," tweeted CNN communications official Matt Dornic.

In a letter to Conde, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, and NBCUniversal chairman Jeff Shell, more than 100 entertainment professionals including current NBC stars Mandy Moore, Justin Hartley, and Chrissy Metz wrote that the question of whether to air Trump's town hall in competition with Biden's event "is not a partisan issue" but is rather "about the political health of our democracy."

"President Trump refused to participate in the virtual debate scheduled for Thursday night by the Presidential Debate Commission," the letter reads. "By agreeing to air his town hall as counter-programming opposite Vice President Biden's town hall on ABC, you are enabling the president's bad behavior while undercutting the Presidential Debate Commission and doing a disservice to the American public. We believe this kind of indifference to the norms and rules of our democracy are what have brought our country to this perilous state."

Shakina Nayfack, a transgender actress who stars in the NBC show "Connecting," spoke out shortly after the network announced the town hall on Wednesday, slamming executives for "a platform to someone who wants to abolish my rights."

Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has starred in several popular NBC shows, was among those on social media who called for an #NBCBlackout, while former "Today" co-host Katie Couric called the network's decision "bad for democracy." 

Former "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien, who was pushed out of his role after only nine months, jokingly compared NBC's decision to air Trump's town hall to his own experience with the network.

"I can't remember the last time I was this shocked by an NBC programming decision," O'Brien tweeted.  

By Julia Conley

Julia Conley is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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