20/20 reached its milestone 40th anniversary this year, and looks well-poised for another lively bunch of decades to break big stories and get newsy celebrities to share their deepest secrets. The ABC newsmagazine picked up a notable five Emmy nominations this year, including ones for stories on the Las Vegas mass shooting and the death of Otto Warmbier, who died not long after his imprisonment in North Korea, and has launched a fledgling franchise in “Truth and Lies.”
“It’s always been the home of masterful storytelling,” ABC News president James Goldston said. “The power of its bookings, coupled with amazing storytelling,” makes for a fearsome primetime news player.
Roone Arledge created 20/20, and Hugh Downs was the host when the show took flight in 1978. Downs came from both a news and game show background, having anchored NBC’s Today and hosted Concentration as well. Contrast that with CBS’ 60 Minutes, which had debuted a decade before, and whose anchors were hard-bitten news vets, and 20/20 made for a more populist approach to a primetime newsmag. 60 Minutes might take down the CEO of a dodgy company, while 20/20 spoke with the people affected by the company’s misdeeds.
“20/20 proved there could be a newsmag other than 60 Minutes,” said Jonathan Klein, former CNN president and CEO of online video network Tapp.
Klein said the program borrowed tenets from local news, including consumer investigations, news-you-can-use and celebrity interviews, in producing its Friday night programs. “We’re in touch, so you be in touch,” went the tagline in 20/20’s early days.
Barbara Walters joined the lineup in 1979, and immediately drew attention for her sit-downs with mega-boldface name guests, including Fidel Castro, Monica Lewinsky and Donald Trump years before he was president. Perhaps her most significant interview was with ex-president Richard Nixon in 1980, where a perspiring Nixon said he should’ve burned the Watergate tapes that did him in years before. The Washington Post likened Walters and Nixon to “a butterfly and an iguana.”
Other 20/20 interviews that got the whole of the nation talking include ones with Christopher Reeve in 1995; the parents of murdered child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey in 2000; Michael Jackson in 2003 (“I am Peter Pan,” Jackson told anchor Martin Bashir); the United Kingdom’s royal family in 2008; and Caitlyn Jenner in 2015.
“We get people to talk while the others are doing write-arounds,” said David Sloan, 20/20 senior executive producer.
Over the years, 20/20, airing Fridays at 10 p.m. ET, established ABC News as a real player in the broadcast news game. Besides the famed celeb interviews, the show also handles breaking news with deftness, including recent stories on the boys trapped in the Thailand cave this past summer (“an incredible piece of work,” said Goldston), Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Houston and Diane Sawyer's “A Hidden America” report on sexual harassment in the workplace.
“We really capture the national conversation on big issues,” Sloan said.
Anchors over the years have included John Miller, Connie Chung, Chris Cuomo, John Stossel and Elizabeth Vargas; David Muir (since 2013) and Amy Robach (2018) currently host 20/20. Sloan has been executive producer for 18 years. Those who preceded him in the role include Jeff Gralnick, Av Westin, Victor Neufeld and Bob Shanks.
ABC News lined up President Trump’s first major interview after taking over the presidency in January 2017, with Muir, also World News Tonight anchor, sitting down with him at the White House. Among other topics discussed, Muir and Trump sparred over the president’s allegations of voter fraud that he said cost him the popular vote in 2016.
Muir’s interview aired in prime that night, hours after it happened. “That speaks volumes about how quick the team is, how nimble they are and how careful they are,” Muir said.
Robach was a Good Morning America anchor before succeeding Vargas on the 20/20 desk earlier this year (she still contributes to GMA). The opportunity to do long-form journalism in primetime was too good for her to pass up, she said. She’s particularly enthused about 20/20’s “Truth and Lies” documentary-style franchise, which has featured close-ups of Tonya Harding, Erik and Lyle Menendez and Charles Manson, among others.
“You think you know something, and then you see it in a different light,” Robach said of the franchise’s appeal. “It’s exactly why I’m in the job I’m in.”
Muir mentions the “very human stories” that define 20/20, and this attribute is never on bigger display than when the program tackles true crime. Last month, 20/20 did an interview with Abby Hernandez, who was abducted in 2013, a teenager walking home from school in New Hampshire. 20/20’s booking department worked painstakingly to line up Hernandez, who was drugged and sexually assaulted during her time in captivity.
“The team stayed with that relationship until Abby was ready to talk,” Beth Hoppe, ABC senior VP for long-form, said.
20/20 has averaged 3.9 million viewers in 2018. Those who run the show are looking forward, not back. But it is moments such as a 40th anniversary, a Hall of Fame induction and those five Emmy nominations, including a win for “Las Vegas: Heartbreak and Heroes,” that allow for a little bit of retrospection.
“Hats off to any show that stays on the air that long,” Klein said, “that continues to draw viewers, and continues to make money.”
While the number of viable news sources out there keeps going up, Goldston said Muir, Robach, Sloan and the team have 20/20 wellpositioned for its next 40 years. “I feel the show is in incredibly good hands for the future,” he said.