Tanya Saracho landed her first television writing job on the Lifetime soap “Devious Maids” in 2012. She was a diversity hire.It’s an official term for a practice meant to encourage inclusion. In an effort to make writers’ rooms — long the bastion of white males — more diverse, studios pay the salary of a minority writer so the show doesn’t have to. Ms. Saracho finds the idea noble but also inescapably problematic.“You get otherized and marginalized and then you are expected to be the culture negotiator and ambassador and defender of every culture, not just yours,” Ms. Saracho, 44, said …
NEW DELHI — On television, Lata and Kabir are clandestine lovers thwarted by faith and history. She is Hindu and he a Muslim in India in the early 1950s, in the wake of bloody sectarian clashes that echo through the country to this day. At one point, in a secluded spot with a Hindu temple as the backdrop, the two young college students share a furtive but passionate kiss.
In the real world, that onscreen kiss has embroiled Netflix, the American streaming service, in the increasingly bitter and religiously charged world of Indian politics.
Members of the Hindu nationalist party that controls India’s central government have asked the authorities to investigate Netflix, calling the scene in the television series “A Suitable Boy” offensive to their beliefs. They have also called on Indians to boycott the streaming service.
Netflix is not likely to face serious legal trouble, experts say. But the campaign puts pressure on the streaming service at a time when the government is increasing censorship of what Indians watch online.
The campaign also comes as members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are pressing anti-Muslim initiatives, including one in the state of Madhya Pradesh that would increase penalties against anyone found guilty of using marriage to force someone to change religion. The party has won over a wide swath of Hindu voters with its nationalist pitch, but it has also divided the country and presided over an increase in religious tensions and sometimes violence, particularly against Muslims.
The campaign “could perversely incite Netflix and other content producers to think twice before commissioning work that depicts interfaith relations in a positive light in the future,” said Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at Ashoka University.
Thomas Cherian, a spokesman for Netflix, said the company had no comment on the police complaint. Netflix, which launched in India only in 2016, has a small but growing audience in the country.
“A Suitable Boy” is based on a 1993 novel by Vikram Seth and revolves around a young Hindu woman struggling with her mother’s edict that she must soon be wed. The six-part series, originally produced by the BBC, takes place in the years after the partition of India, when millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs scrambled to get on the correct side of the border after what is now Pakistan was carved out of the country to be a mostly Muslim nation. An untold number of people perished in the resulting violence.
The series was directed by Mira Nair, who was born in India and has had a long career as a filmmaker in India and Hollywood, directing movies including “Monsoon Wedding,” “Mississippi Masala” and “Vanity Fair.”
Narottam Mishra, a member of the B.J.P. and home minister in Madhya Pradesh state, said on Monday that a party youth leader had filed the complaint about “A Suitable Boy” because of scenes that depict the protagonists kissing at a Hindu temple.
“To me there is nothing suitable in that. In our temple, if you are filming a kissing scene, Rama music is on in the background, I do not consider it good,” Mr. Mishra said at a news conference on Monday, referring to Hindu devotional music. “For that there are other places.”
Rakesh Kumar Singh, the police chief in the district where the complaint was filed, said an investigation was underway.
The complaint named Monika Shergill, vice president for content for Netflix India, and Ambika Khurana, the company’s director of public policy in India.
If convicted, Ms. Shergill and Ms. Khurana would face a jail term of up to three years, a fine, or both.
In India, intentionally hurting religious sentiments is a criminal offense, and this isn’t the first time Bollywood actors, comedians or others in the entertainment industry have been charged.
But courts, including India’s Supreme Court, have generally taken a narrow view of the law, saying that content deemed offensive by some isn’t necessarily intentionally malicious, and that invoking the section on religious sentiment too liberally threatens freedom of speech.
In this case, legal experts said it was unlikely that a police investigation would advance very far.
However, the possibility of a chilling effect on Netflix is real, as rhetoric against interreligious romance in India heats up and as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes greater control over digital content.
Gaurav Tiwari, the B.J.P. youth leader who filed the complaint, had issued a call to action on Twitter even before that, urging his followers to delete Netflix from their phones. He also accused the video-streaming service of promoting “love jihad,” a term used by Hindu nationalists who accuse minority Muslims of luring Hindu women to marry them and forcing them to convert to Islam to change India’s demographic balance.
The complaint was filed in Madhya Pradesh, the state where lawmakers are planning to consider a bill early next year that would make forced religious conversion by marriage a nonbailable offense subject to a five-year sentence. Mr. Mishra has said the bill is meant to check the rising incidence of forced conversions in the state.
State legislatures in Uttar Pradesh, whose top official is a Hindu monk, and two other B.J.P.-controlled states are likely to take up similar bills. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organization affiliated with the B.J.P., is lobbying state governments across India for laws regulating interfaith marriages.
Conservative norms in India ensure that interreligious unions remain relatively rare, though past Indian governments have encouraged secular views on the matter. India’s Special Marriage Act, passed in 1954, was intended to bolster the secular ideals in the country’s Constitution by overturning a British colonial-era law that required the bride or groom to renounce his or her faith.
Amid the rising tide of Hindu nationalism, interfaith relationships have come under sharp criticism from anti-Muslim forces.
Last month, a unit of India’s Tata conglomerate withdrew a jewelry advertisement featuring a Hindu-Muslim family celebrating a baby shower, following threats to one of its stores and wide criticism on social media.
Beyond issues of religion, Netflix and other streaming services were already getting increased scrutiny from the Indian government.
Earlier this month, the Indian government announced rules to regulate content on video streaming platforms, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney’s Hotstar. The Indian government already plays a similar role in movies and broadcast television, but many users of streaming services enjoy the scant restrictions on programming they watch online.
Free speech advocates worry that Indian viewers could be subjected to the censorship of language, sex, violence and even cigarette smoking they already experience in Bollywood and Hollywood films shown in Indian movie theaters.
Bollywood and show business have sometimes made for easy targets for India’s politicians and activists. But they also can serve as a handy rallying center for whipping up public sentiment. While “A Suitable Boy” isn’t likely to get pulled from India’s smartphones and computer screens, it could remain a political talking point for some time.
The Netflix series “constitutes for these conservative organizations both a threat as well as an opportunity to mobilize their base around a symbolic target, and spread false notions that vilify Muslims at large,” said Mr. Verniers, of Ashoka University.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
Flanked by aides in the Oval Office on Wednesday, President Trump dialed up a friend in the news media with a message: Keep up the good work.
“He said that it’s just incredible, the ratings you’re getting, and everyone’s talking about it,” recalled Christopher Ruddy, the owner of Newsmax, a niche conservative cable network that has yet to declare a winner in the 2020 presidential election.
Based in Boca Raton, Fla., the network features lo-fi production values and off-brand personalities like Sean Spicer and Diamond and Silk. Even finding it can be a chore: It appears on Channel 1115 in some major markets. But since Election Day, Newsmax has become a growing power in a conservative media sphere that has been scrambled by President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory and Mr. Trump’s refusal to concede.
Hundreds of thousands of new viewers have tuned into Newsmax programs that embrace the president’s debunked claims of voter fraud and insist that Mr. Trump can keep the White House. Until recently, the network’s top shows attracted a paltry 58,000 viewers. On Thursday night, the network drew its biggest audience ever, notching 1.1 million viewers at 7 p.m.
The out-of-nowhere rise has come as Fox News — the No. 1 network in TV news and long the destination of choice for many Trump partisans — has experienced a rare dip in dominance. Ratings for the Rupert Murdoch-owned network have dropped since election night, when its early projection that Mr. Biden had won Arizona infuriated Mr. Trump and his allies.
“The great @FoxNews daytime ratings CRASH will only get worse!” the president tweeted on Friday.
“CRASH” is overstating things: Fox News remains the most-watched cable news network in prime-time, averaging about 3.5 million viewers the week after the election. But the shift underscores a volatility among conservative audiences as Mr. Trump denies the reality of his defeat.
While Fox News is home to Trump cheerleaders like Sean Hannity, it also runs a decision desk and a daytime news operation that have declared Mr. Biden the president-elect. That is something many Trump fans do not want to hear, and Newsmax, which frequently reminds viewers it has not projected a winner, is rushing to provide an alternative.
“This whole idea of a president-elect, it is a media fabrication,” Greg Kelly, the 7 p.m. Newsmax host, told viewers last week. “This is not done. This thing could turn.” On Thursday, Mr. Kelly recorded his best numbers yet, pulling 1.1 million viewers for his hour.
Mr. Kelly, a former Fox News correspondent and a son of the former New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, said in an interview that his belief in Mr. Trump’s chances is genuine. “I really believe he’s going to prevail,” he said. “It’s a sense I have. Can I articulate perfectly why I thought he was going to win? No. But I’ll say the media has been wrong about him so many times.”
In fact, Mr. Biden won a decisive victory. Newsmax’s founder, Mr. Ruddy, contends that he is merely staying open-minded. “My view is that it’s an uphill battle for the president to change the vote, but he should be given the right to have a recount,” he said in an interview.
Newsmax is an unusual tribune for baseless accusations of voter fraud.
Mr. Ruddy is a longtime confidant of Mr. Trump and a member of his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. But he calls himself a “Reagan conservative,” belongs to no political party and is a friend of Bill Clinton — despite having built his career in part as a New York Post reporter who cast doubt on the investigation into the death of a Clinton aide, Vincent Foster. Mr. Ruddy later contributed large sums to the Clinton Foundation and has a photograph of himself with the former president on his wall.
The 12th of 14 children, Mr. Ruddy grew up on Long Island and attended the London School of Economics before founding Newsmax in 1998 as a conservative website. The TV network followed in 2014, originally positioned as a centrist alternative to Fox News.
These days, Newsmax is a cozy clubhouse for Trump allies who speak emphatically about a purported second term and have taken shots at Fox News. Mr. Kelly expressed his contempt on his Thursday episode after playing a clip of a Fox News White House correspondent, Kristin Fisher, calling claims by the Trump legal team “light on facts.”
“The nerve they have, the arrogance,” Mr. Kelly said.
Newsmax says it is available in more than 70 million households, but on many cable systems it is listed alongside obscure channels like Newsy, Cheddar and United Nations TV. (Newsmax is still more prominent than One America News, another network that Mr. Trump has promoted.) Mr. Kelly recently thanked viewers for their “deliberate effort” in finding the network.
Its Manhattan studio is bare-bones — Mr. Ruddy called his cable operation “fledgling” and suggested it did not yet turn a profit — and its visuals are more public access than prime-time, lacking the splashy graphics of better-financed rivals. Some of its guests have been shunned by other networks, like Mark Halperin, a political journalist accused of sexual misconduct. (Mr. Kelly was the subject of a sexual assault claim in 2012; prosecutors declined to file charges.)
Then, there are the technical snafus. Wednesday’s episode of “Greg Kelly Reports” opened with a blank screen. After 12 seconds, the host appeared, midsentence in a monologue.
None of this has stopped Mr. Kelly from now drawing an audience about four times larger than CNBC’s Shepard Smith, a former Fox News anchor whose heavily promoted new program airs against it at 7 p.m.
Fox News, which benefited enormously from Mr. Trump’s rise, easily beats Newsmax in overall viewership. But since the network called the race for Mr. Biden, Trump supporters have chanted “Fox News sucks!” at demonstrations in Arizona and Washington, and its ratings have fallen well below pre-election levels.
Much of the drop has come during daytime hours, when its news anchors acknowledge Mr. Biden’s victory. But several Fox News opinion shows have seen a dip, too: Earlier this month, for the first time in 19 years, “Fox & Friends” drew a smaller weekly audience than MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
The loss of viewers has set off alarm bells inside Fox News, said several people with ties to the network who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid straining relationships. A new slogan promoting its pro-Trump opinion hosts — “Standing Up For What’s Right” — is now in heavy rotation.
“There’s a ton of discontent with Fox News in conservative circles,” said Nicole Hemmer, a Columbia University scholar who studies right-wing media.
The tensions have spilled into Fox News programming. On “The Five,” Geraldo Rivera attacked a pro-Trump colleague, Jesse Watters, for endorsing baseless claims about a stolen election. In prime time, Tucker Carlson cast doubt on the claims of Sidney Powell, a Trump lawyer, saying she had failed to produce evidence of election fraud. But in the next hour, Mr. Hannity invited another Trump lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to share his baseless claims with viewers.
Fox News declined to comment. But the network remains a ratings goliath: This summer, its prime-time audience was not merely the largest on cable, but the largest across all of television. And many in the TV industry expect the network to thrive once Mr. Biden takes office, capitalizing on the same conservative “resistance” viewership that fueled its success during the Obama years.
Even if Newsmax is more willing to indulge the outlandish prospect that Mr. Trump can serve a second term, Mr. Ruddy said that Newsmax would not become, in his words, “Trumpmax.”
“I don’t see him becoming a partner in the company,” he said, adding that he doubted that Mr. Trump “would want to tether himself to one news organization.” A Trump-hosted talk show, he added, would be “terrific,” but he has not made a formal approach.
“He’s confident he has a good shot at winning, and I think he’s focused on that,” Mr. Ruddy said. “I wouldn’t want him to lose his focus.”
The tension mounted for days — and then broke, all at once.
CNN went first, calling the presidential election at 11:24 a.m. Eastern. It was followed in quick succession by NBC, CBS, ABC and The Associated Press. Fox News confirmed the outcome at 11:40 a.m., underscoring what its anchor Chris Wallace later called “the power of what we are seeing right now.”
“Here we have on Fox the headline, the chyron at the bottom of the screen, ‘Joe Biden Elected 46th President of the United States,’” Mr. Wallace told his viewers. “On Fox.”
The projection that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had beaten President Trump came after days of slow-burning suspense on the cable news networks and broadcast channels. As millions of anxious viewers watched, the anchors and pundits filled hours of airtime by tracking the vote counts in battleground states. All the while, President Trump fumed and filed legal challenges.
Some on-air personalities began to lose patience with the slow pace. On ABC on Friday night, Nate Silver, the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, was asked if he thought the race was over, and he replied, simply, “At this point, yeah.”
The anchor, George Stephanopoulos, and ABC’s supersized panel burst into laughter, with one panelist exclaiming, “Why are we still here then?”
Some viewers may have begun wondering the same, despite pre-election pledges by news outlets that they would be extra careful in tabulating results. But resolution came shortly before lunchtime on Saturday, courtesy of Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
“After four long tense days, we’ve reached a historic moment in this election,” Mr. Blitzer announced. “CNN projects Joseph R. Biden is elected the 46th president of the United States, winning the White House and denying President Trump a second term.”
It was a projection in Pennsylvania that tipped the networks’ models to a surefire Biden victory, as a batch of a few thousand ballots from Philadelphia trickled in, heavily skewed in Mr. Biden’s favor. “It is a cathartic moment for millions and millions of Americans,” said the CNN correspondent Abby Phillip.
Catharsis of a different sort came for the dozens of television producers, correspondents and anchors who had been overseeing a virtually 24-hour broadcast since Tuesday night, with some political analysts pulling overnight shifts in the event of a decisive development.
Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s highest-rated anchor, had been the co-anchor of the network’s broadcasts all week until she had to go into isolation in what she called her “Covid quarantine cove” on Friday after a close contact tested positive for the virus.
On Saturday, Ms. Maddow appeared onscreen via Skype, explaining to viewers that she was cleaning her bedroom when she heard about Mr. Trump’s loss. (She said she was cleaning out the three-hole punch that she had used to make her research binder for election night and “Dustbusting up the little holes that fell out.”)
“I’m not sure this is the way I imagined I would learn that Donald Trump was a one-term president,” Ms. Maddow said. “But I’ll take it!”
Until Saturday, Fox News had appeared closest to calling the race for Mr. Biden because of its early call for the Democrat in Arizona, an election night projection that prompted criticism from Mr. Trump, and some rival data journalists, for possibly jumping the gun.
In the end, Fox News was the final TV network to project a Biden win. The anchor Neil Cavuto was holding down the 11 a.m. shift as other networks began to make the call; he informed viewers of those projections but said Fox News was not yet prepared to weigh in.
By 11:40 a.m., the network’s lead anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum had arrived on the set. “The Fox News decision desk can now project that former Vice President Joe Biden will win Pennsylvania and Nevada, putting him over the 270 electoral votes he needs to become the 46th president of the United States,” Mr. Baier said.
Mr. Wallace told Fox News viewers that Mr. Trump “is going to end up with more votes than anybody in history — except for Joe Biden this year,” adding, “He is going to be a big player. He is not going to go away and be quiet.”
Still, Mr. Wallace seemed unimpressed with the president’s baseless talk of a fraudulent election and his legal challenges. “I think it’s going to become increasingly untenable,” he said, noting that Mr. Trump would need to find evidence of “industrial-strength election fraud and we have seen none of that so far.” He noted that Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, had begun to talk of a Biden presidency and predicted that his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate would follow Mr. Graham’s lead.
Donna Brazile, a Fox News contributor who was formerly the interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, wiped away tears as she reflected on the significance of Senator Kamala Harris becoming the first woman of color to be elected vice president.
“Been a long time coming, to be the last to get voting rights, to be those who waited and waited for our turn; it’s been a long time coming,” she said, after noting that she had been thinking about her grandmother, who did not have the right to vote. “This is not about asking anyone to leave the room. Just scoot over and let women also share in the leadership of this country.”
On CNN, the anchor Anderson Cooper asked the pundit Van Jones for his reaction. Mr. Jones, tearing up behind his eyeglasses, took a moment before saying, “Well, it’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to be a dad. It’s easier to tell your kids that character matters.”
The nail-biting week had exhausted anchors and audiences alike. On Friday, Jake Tapper of CNN acknowledged “frustration” among viewers, but evoked memories of the 2000 election, when networks had to reverse projections in Florida. “No one wants to go through that again,” he said, urging patience. “Everyone in the media wants to get it right.”
Shortly after Saturday’s projection, the major networks showed scenes of revelers celebrating Mr. Biden’s victory in American cities, as well as groups of Trump supporters in places like Harrisburg, Pa., who were waving Trump flags and carrying signs that said, “Stop the Steal,” a reference to the president’s unfounded claims that the election was fraudulent.
Mr. Trump, at that moment, was absent from the airwaves. He was off playing golf at a course in Virginia that bears his name.
Edmund Lee and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.
President Trump and Fox News have a complicated relationship. Election Day did not help.
The cable news channel that kick-started Donald J. Trump’s political career was suddenly in the position of signaling its potential end. The network’s early call of Arizona on Tuesday night for Joseph R. Biden Jr. infuriated Mr. Trump and his aides, who reached out publicly and behind the scenes to Fox News executives about the call.
The network held firm — even as two of its biggest stars, Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro, attended Mr. Trump’s defiant early-morning speech in the East Room of the White House.
The election-night split screen underscored the fine line that Fox News’s anchors and opinion hosts have walked in the past 24 hours. By Wednesday night, Fox News was the closest of any major network to calling the presidential race for Mr. Biden — not the outcome that many fans of its pro-Trump programming may have wanted.
Fox News was also the only major cable network to carry a news conference on Wednesday held by the president’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was making baseless claims of election fraud. But the channel promptly cut away to announce a major development: It projected a win in Michigan for Mr. Biden, placing him at the doorstep of the presidency, according to Fox’s projections.
And shortly after Bret Baier, the network’s chief political anchor, emphasized to viewers on Wednesday that Mr. Trump’s threatened litigation could throw the race into doubt — even if Mr. Biden was projected to win 270 electoral votes — Fox News’s politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, threw cold water on some of the Trump campaign’s baseless claims.
“Lawsuits, schmawsuits,” Mr. Stirewalt said. “We haven’t seen any evidence yet that there’s anything wrong.”
Fox News has long occupied an unusual position in the Trump orbit. The network is home to some of the president’s most vociferous defenders, including Sean Hannity, Ms. Ingraham, and the hosts of “Fox & Friends.” But Mr. Trump frequently takes potshots at its news division and polling operation.
“Fox has changed a lot,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday morning on “Fox & Friends.” “Somebody said, ‘What’s the biggest difference between this and four years ago?’ I say, ‘Fox.’”
The president is a vociferous viewer and constant critic, praising preferred hosts by first name at rallies (“Jeanine!” “Tucker!”) and dialing up the network’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, to complain about coverage. He has hired (and fired) former network personnel; belittled its hosts while also agreeing to interviews; and relied on Mr. Hannity’s political advice while bashing news anchors like Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith, who left the network for CNBC.
In the wake of Tuesday’s Arizona call, a mixed view of Fox News had spread to some of Mr. Trump’s allies. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican who rose to fame on the strength of Fox News guest appearances, bashed the network for what he deemed an insufficiently swift projection of a Trump win in his home state.
“For Fox to be so resistant to calling Florida and yet jumping the gun on Arizona, I just thought was inexplicable,” Mr. DeSantis told reporters in Tallahassee on Wednesday. “I don’t think that that was done without some type of motive, whether it’s ratings, whether it’s something else.”
In fact, members of Fox News’s decision desk said repeatedly that the network’s polling team — which reports to the news division and is sequestered on election night — was merely adhering to a rigorous analysis. The network’s data team, led by Arnon Mishkin, relies on a proprietary model that draws on data from The Associated Press.
Still, some Fox News personalities speculated whether Arizona would remain in Mr. Biden’s column. “There may be some tightening there,” Mr. Baier said on Wednesday, summarizing arguments from the Trump campaign, while Bill Hemmer used an interactive map to conjure ways Mr. Trump could eke out a win in Pennsylvania.
But when Mr. Hemmer asked if the network might consider reversing the Arizona call, Mr. Stirewalt laughed. “Not that I see,” he said.
Mr. Wallace also offered a grim prognosis for the president. “It’s real simple math now,” he said, shortly after Fox News projected that Mr. Biden would win Wisconsin. Pointing to Mr. Biden’s advantages in Nevada and Michigan, he said: “If he just holds on to his lead in those two states, he’s the 46th president of the United States.” (Fox News would call Michigan just over an hour later.)
Mr. Hannity did not appear on Fox News on election night, but he returned on Wednesday evening, echoing some of the president’s talking points about the integrity of the vote count. He stopped short, though, of Mr. Trump’s baseless claim of outright “fraud.”
“Do you trust what happened in this election?” Mr. Hannity asked viewers. “Do you believe these election results are accurate? Do you believe this was a free and fair election? I have a lot of questions.”
Mr. Hannity had few specific arguments, tossing in a reference to “dead people,” and at times his monologue sounded like a regular episode of his program, not a postelection special. His lead-in, Tucker Carlson, also spoke ominously about the vote results while avoiding an outright embrace of Mr. Trump’s baseless claims about winning states that had yet to be called.
“Many Americans will never again accept the results of a presidential election,” Mr. Carlson said at one point.
Fox News set a record for the highest Election Day prime-time viewership totals in cable news history, according to Nielsen. The network drew 14.1 million viewers between 8 and 11. Its next-closest competitor, CNN, drew nine million in the three hour block. Each of the three top broadcast networks carried less than half of Fox’s audience, with ABC, at 6.3 million viewers, leading that group.
This followed a delirious ratings run for Fox News in the weeks leading up to the election. In October, Fox News averaged 4.9 million viewers in prime time, up 85 percent from a year earlier and far higher than MSNBC, which finished second with 2.7 million viewers.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” earned an average of 5.4 million viewers in October, the highest monthly average for any show in the history of cable news. And Fox News even scored higher viewership totals than any of the broadcast networks during the two presidential debates and the vice-presidential debate.
Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s elder son and the executive chairman of Fox News’s parent company, was asked on a Tuesday earnings call if a prospective Biden victory might rein in the channel’s ratings success. He pointed out that Fox News had dominated cable news rivals through “different administrations and different political cycles.”
Mr. Murdoch added: “We fully expect to be No. 1.”
Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.
Call it the Great Wait.
As the polls closed in key states on Tuesday, TV networks held off on projecting winners throughout much of their election night coverage, promising a prudent, go-slow approach to avoid the up-is-down shocks of 2016.
[Fox News made a big call on election night, buoying Biden and angering Trump.]
By midnight on the East Coast, anchors were telling viewers that it was now their turn to cool their heels: A clear outcome, they warned, could take days.
“If it were a tennis match, each side is holding serve,” the Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said. “I think the story of the night has really not been told yet.”
And on CNN, the map maestro John King likened the pending results in Pennsylvania — which was emerging as a tipping point — to a ballgame in the “second or third inning at best.”
With a vote count complicated by the coronavirus pandemic and enormous pressure bearing down on TV executives to dodge an egg-on-the-face moment, the major news networks had promised to be cautious.
They weren’t kidding.
No major projections in battleground states came during prime-time hours. The dam burst shortly after 11 when the Fox News decision desk called Florida, Texas and Ohio for President Trump and — in a projection that caught other news outlets off guard — Arizona for Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Unlike ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, which share information on vote counts as members of the National Election Pool, Fox News relies on a proprietary data model that draws from The Associated Press to make its determinations on election nights. (Other networks continued to describe those battleground states as too close to call after the projections by Fox News.)
One clear assessment of what was shaping up to be an inconclusive evening came shortly before 11:30, courtesy of ABC’s lead anchor, George Stephanopoulos.
“It is looking increasingly clear that we are not going to know who the next president of the United States will be tonight,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “And we are just going to have to be patient as we go through this process in the coming hours, and perhaps in the coming days.”
Prudence in election coverage is preferable to jumping the gun. Still, as the night wore on, anchors seemed ready for answers. Fox News brought on its politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, several times to explain the reluctance of the network’s data team to project battleground winners. It turned into a good-natured grilling session.
“Our call will hold, we feel very confident,” Mr. Stirewalt said after his team’s early projection that Mr. Biden would take Virginia.
On MSNBC, Steve Kornacki frantically worked his interactive map to work out scenarios that would allow Mr. Biden to win the election without taking Pennsylvania.
“That is crazy,” said Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s highest-rated anchor, as she looked on. “I mean, I have done that math myself, and I know it’s true, but I can’t believe we’re talking about it as one of the things that might actually happen.”
Before the evening began, major media polls had shown Mr. Biden with a narrow lead in several key states, and some producers had game-planned how to handle a situation in which Mr. Trump, down in the count, tried to declare a premature victory.
Instead, the early results prompted conversations about why the polls had seemed to miss some of the night’s emerging trends.
On MSNBC, a destination for ardent critics of the president, the anchor Nicolle Wallace argued that her colleagues’ focus on North Carolina was wrong, just as the state appeared to be tilting toward Mr. Trump. “We shouldn’t pull our viewers into dramas that aren’t necessary,” Ms. Wallace said, calling the state a “sideshow.”
When Mr. Biden fell behind in Florida, Ms. Wallace said: “You can feel the hopes and the dreams of our viewers falling down, and you can hear liquor cabinets opening all across this great land.”
CNN’s coverage was dominated by updates from Mr. King, who zoomed in and out of counties in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. The conclusions were murky. “Is it significant?” Mr. King asked, peering over results in Pasco County in Florida. “We don’t know.”
Four years on, TV networks still have scars from the 2016 race, when Mr. Trump’s victory shocked many journalists. His norm-busting presidency and its political fallout became the central focus of cable news, which watched audiences swell.
As Wednesday dawned, the future for the networks, and the country, remained hazy. “We are tonight putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle, but we don’t have the box that has the picture on it,” the CBS News anchor John Dickerson said. “We’re going to be developing that picture as we look at these pieces.”
Tiffany Hsu, Edmund Lee and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.
It was just after 12:30 a.m. on election night, and Fox News was under fire.
“Arnon, we’re getting a lot of incoming here, and we need you to answer some questions,” the network’s chief political anchor, Bret Baier, said pointedly.
“Shoot!” Arnon Mishkin replied, his face breaking into a smile.
Roughly an hour earlier, Mr. Mishkin’s decision desk team at Fox News had made a bold call that instantly changed the tenor of the night: Arizona had gone to Joseph R. Biden Jr. The projection buoyed supporters of the Democratic candidate and sent President Trump’s aides into conniptions.
Even Mr. Trump himself took a whack, referring dismissively to Mr. Mishkin during an early-morning appearance at the White House as “the gentleman that called it.”
“It” was Arizona, a state that Mr. Trump won in 2016 but that Fox News now said had fallen into Mr. Biden’s column, just as Democrats were ruing a lackluster showing in Florida.
Trump campaign officials said they were taken aback by the Fox News projection: Jason Miller, the campaign’s chief strategist, claimed on Twitter that more than one million votes were outstanding in Arizona, and he baselessly accused the network of “trying to invalidate their votes.” John Roberts, the network’s chief White House correspondent, said the campaign was “livid.” A false rumor circulated online that Fox News had retracted its call.
Cue Mr. Mishkin, a management and polling consultant who has helmed Fox News’s decision desk since 2008. Far from caving to the pressure from Mr. Trump’s aides, he held firm, saying the campaign’s insistence that it could secure a win in the state was, simply, wrong.
“That’s not true,” Mr. Mishkin told the Fox News anchor team. “I’m sorry, the president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes.” He added, “We’re not wrong in this particular case.”
This was a night when other networks were playing things cautiously. CNN, for instance, did not project Mr. Biden’s victory in Virginia until several hours after The Associated Press had already called it.
It was not the first time that Fox News’s projections had thrown an unlikely lifeline to Democrats who thought their side was headed toward early defeat.
In the 2018 midterms, early results from Florida suggested that an anticipated “blue wave” might have been over before it began. That year, Van Jones on CNN called the early results “heartbreaking,” and George Stephanopoulos mused on ABC that Democrats were having a “disappointing night.”
But Mr. Mishkin’s team abruptly called the House for the Democrats roughly an hour before other major news outlets did so. (Some Democrats were so shocked that Fox News had made a call in their favor that they speculated about a conspiracy.)
In 2012, Mr. Mishkin made another election night cameo, telling viewers why he had projected a win in Ohio for Barack Obama despite the doubts of a star Fox News analyst, Karl Rove. (Mr. Obama ultimately won the state.) It might not have been a household-name-making moment — a subsequent summary of the telecast by The Atlantic described Mr. Mishkin merely as “Nerd 1” — but it underscored his behind-the-scenes importance at a network whose polling operation has won the respect of rivals.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mishkin once again faced skepticism from conservative colleagues. The pundit Katie Pavlich, an Arizonan, told viewers she was doubtful that her home state had gone for Mr. Biden, and the host Tucker Carlson told viewers that Trump officials were skeptical about a Biden win in the state.
At 2:51 a.m. Eastern — about three and a half hours after Fox News had made its call — The Associated Press made its own projection in Arizona: Mr. Biden would win.
As Mr. Baier wrapped up his Wednesday interview with Mr. Mishkin, before The A.P.’s call, he had a couple of follow-ups for his colleague. Was he “100 percent” sure?
“Yes,” Mr. Mishkin replied.
“All this pushback, you’re going to say we made the right call when we made it?” Mr. Baier pressed.
“We made the correct call,” Mr. Mishkin replied, “and that’s why we made the correct call when we made it.” He added, a bit sheepishly, “I’m sorry.”
Annie Karni contributed reporting.
There’s a media phenomenon the old-time blogger Mickey Kaus calls “overism”: articles in the week before the election whose premise is that even before the votes are counted, we know the winner — in this case, Joe Biden.
I plead guilty to writing a column with that tacit premise. I spent last week asking leading figures in media to indulge in the accursed practice of speculating about the consequences of an election that isn’t over yet. They all read the same polls as you do and think that President Trump will probably lose.
But many leaders in news and media have been holding their breaths for the election — and planning everything from retirements to significant shifts in strategy for the months to come, whoever wins. President Trump, after all, succeeded in making the old media great again, in part through his obsession with it. His riveting show allowed much of the television news business, in particular, to put off reckoning with the technological shifts — toward mobile devices and on-demand consumption — that have changed all of our lives. But now, change is in the air across a news landscape that has revolved around the president.
And given the jittery pre-election timing, I’ll try to keep these items short so you can check Nate Silver’s Twitter feed in between reading them.
The News Business After Trump
Before the 2016 election, Andrew Lack, then the head of NBC News, warned colleagues that MSNBC’s revenue would take a 30 percent hit if — when — Hillary Clinton was elected, two people familiar with the remark told me. (After the debacle in 2016, few in the media wanted to be quoted speculating about what happens after the election.)
Well, TV sure dodged that bullet! CNN’s chief, Jeff Zucker, later told his Los Angeles bureau that Mr. Trump had bought the declining business four more years, a person who was there recalled. (A spokesman for CNN said that Mr. Zucker would not have speculated on future ratings.) And it has been a profitable time for cable news, a record-breaking year for political books and, generally, a bonanza for the legacy media that live rent-free in the president’s head.
That may be ending. MSNBC and other outlets that thrived on resistance to Mr. Trump may see their audiences fade, said Ken Lerer, a veteran investor and adviser to old media and new, who also predicted that The New York Times would “cool off” as you, dear reader, find other things to do.
And the people who continue to pay attention to the news will stay online.
“The pandemic has advanced digital by four or five years and it will not go back to what it was,” Mr. Lerer said.
In corporate media, that means what Cesar Conde, the new chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, has been calling an “omnichannel” strategy, as brands like MSNBC no longer see themselves primarily as television. For new outlets, it’s an opportunity to press their advantage of being native to this new world.
“Many media organizations have spent the past four years generally failing to adapt to a campaign, a president, a White House and an administration that is extremely online,” said Stacy-Marie Ishmael, the editorial director of the nonprofit Texas Tribune. “We are only, four years in, getting to grips with how to contend with rhetorical techniques, messaging and communications steeped in misinformation and propaganda.”
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Others predicted a deeper cultural shift — from Stephen Colbert’s biting satire back to the sillier Jimmy Fallon, from politics back to entertainment, whenever the studios can get production running again. But some veterans of the business of politics doubt that news coverage can really calm down — or that consumers can look away.
“If Biden is elected, conservatives will be energized, not retreating,” said Eric Nelson, the editorial director of Broadside Books, HarperCollins’s conservative imprint. “Trump will keep tweeting, and new scandals from his presidency will keep unfolding for well into 2022. By the time that all chaos and nonsense runs out, Trump could be running again for 2024.”
A Wave of Retirements
You aren’t the only one just barely hanging on until Election Day. Most of the top leaders of many name-brand American news institutions will probably be gone soon, too. The executive editor of The Los Angeles Times, Norm Pearlstine, is looking to recruit a successor by the end of the year, he told me. Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, just bought a house out of town and two Posties said they expected him to depart next year. He hasn’t given notice, The Post’s spokeswoman, Kristine Coratti Kelly, said. And the executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, is on track to retire by the time he turns 66 in 2022, two Times executives told me, dampening speculation that he might stay longer.
Over in big TV, Mr. Zucker, of CNN, has signaled that he’s frustrated with WarnerMedia, and broadcast television is overflowing with speculation about how long the network news chiefs will stay on, though no executives have suggested imminent departures. “Everyone is assuming there’s going to be turnover everywhere, and everyone is absolutely terrified about who is going to come in,” one television industry insider said.
This isn’t just the usual revolving door. Newsroom leaders face strong pulls in conflicting directions. Outlets all along the spectrum, from the staid BBC to the radical Intercept, have been moving to reassert final editorial control over their journalists. But newsroom employees — like a generation of workers across many industries — are arriving with heightened demands to be given more of a say in running their companies than in years past. New leaders may find opportunities to resolve some of the heated newsroom battles of the last year, or they may walk into firestorms.
Mr. Pearlstine, the only one talking openly of his departure, told me that the new “metrics for success might be different as well — issues such as inclusiveness, such as being anti-racist, such as really commanding some new platform, be it podcasts or video or newsletters, in addition to having journalistic credentials.”
And, he said, the old top-down newsroom management is a thing of the past. “Consent of the governed is something you have to take pretty seriously,” he said.
Wesley Lowery, a CBS News correspondent who has been a voice for more diverse and politically engaged journalism, said he had already seen signs of change.
“These big institutions very rarely come out and announce some big sweeping change — they say, ‘We’re not changing,’ and they change,” he said. “Even people who made a big deal about how the rebels were wrong are now conceding to the things we all wanted.”
Fox News on Autopilot
The right-wing cable channel has been riding high as the quasi-official White House network, though it has always been at its strongest when it’s attacking Democrats — who seem poised to take power.
But the approaching election has executives around Lachlan Murdoch, Fox’s chief executive, preparing to battle on several fronts: with left-wing critics, with what senior executives fear could be regulatory retribution from Democrats and perhaps most of all from James Murdoch, Lachlan’s more liberal brother and critic, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans.
And Lachlan Murdoch ends the election cycle as he began it: with no real control of the network’s high-profile talent and an unusually low profile for a figure of his nominal political power. One data point: a surprised patron of the Midtown power lunch spot Estiatorio Milos in late October reported overhearing Mr. Murdoch politely spelling his name to a hostess who didn’t recognize him.
The Attention Wars
The battles over speech and censorship, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci tweeted recently, are becoming “attention wars.” As recently as last week, senators were dragging in tech executives to complain about individual tweets, but the arguments are about to turn more consequential. The platforms are increasingly being pushed to disclose how content travels and why — not just what they leave up and what they take down.
“We’re in this brave new world of content moderation that’s outside the take-down/leave-up false binary,” said Evelyn Douek, an expert on the subject and a lecturer at Harvard Law School.
In practice, Twitter, Facebook and the other big platforms are facing two sources of pressure. The first is from Australia and the European Union, where Germany has become the latest to push toward tight copyright restrictions.
“We are now at an inflection point with the digital platforms,” Rod Sims, the chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, told me in an email. “The tide has turned all around the world as governments and antitrust enforcers now see the size of the challenge ahead.”
The second source of pressure is the United States, where President Trump has pushed to repeal or revise Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects platforms from being liable for what they publish while allowing them to moderate content. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a co-author of the 1996 law who would head the powerful Finance Committee if Democrats take control of the Senate, said he was skeptical that changes to Section 230 would actually stop misinformation or what conservatives claim is censorship. And he noted that Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has said he supports some revisions, too.
“He made his money, and now he wants to pull up the ladder behind him,” Senator Wyden said in an interview on Saturday. “The fact that Facebook, of all companies, is calling for changes to 230 makes you say, ‘Wait a second.’” Mr. Wyden said his priority when it comes to big tech in the new Congress would be privacy legislation.
The media’s internal conflicts, meanwhile, play out on Twitter and, increasingly, on Substack, a newsletter platform where large audiences are paying for work by anti-Trump conservatives and iconoclastic voices on the left, who were joined last week by Glenn Greenwald, the national security journalist and free speech advocate who helped found The Intercept and quit in a dispute over whether his work should be edited.
Another way of looking at Substack is as a kind of Twitter Premium — a place you can pay for more content from your favorite journalists. And that synergy has caught the attention of some at Twitter itself, where the notion of acquiring the newsletter company has been discussed internally, a person familiar with the conversations said. (Executives at both companies declined to comment on the speculation.)
But it’s not clear whether Substack will continue to be the venue of choice for all of its stars. Mr. Greenwald wrote that he’d been exploring “the feasibility of securing financing for a new outlet” that would challenge what he sees as the “groupthink” of the left in the Trump era. And roiling anger in Silicon Valley with tough media coverage of companies and investments means there are deep pools of money for a new assault on big media.
“There’s going to be a surge of money after the election, especially from tech bros who think they can fix everything,” said one of the Substack writers who has drawn interest from tech investors.
Staying Sane for the Next 48 Hours
Nothing good will come of reading political news, much less Twitter, between now and the election. Election week is usually a good time to hide out at the movies, but with theaters closed, you’ll have to find escape elsewhere. Two favorites: The Times’s brilliant Election Distractor on the web; and for your Kindle, Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, a bit of high-concept political sci-fi that will prepare you for many of the coming tech and political battles.
On election night, however, come to Twitter for the jokes and stay for what is really one of the highlights of American democracy, such as it is: the reassuringly sophisticated, nerdy and nonpartisan vote-counting conversation that you can listen in on among the likes of Mr. Silver, Nate Cohn, Ariel Edwards-Levy and Brandon Finnigan.
Batches of ballots that will be counted at different times, depending on the swing state. Twitter gadflies and foreign agents intent on sowing confusion. A president who has telegraphed for months that he may not accept results he deems unfavorable.
Television executives overseeing this year’s election night broadcasts are facing big challenges. And the world will be watching.
“Frankly, the well-being of the country depends on us being cautious, disciplined and unassailably correct,” said Noah Oppenheim, the NBC News president. “We are committed to getting this right.”
In interviews, the men and women in charge of network news coverage — the platform that tens of millions of Americans will turn to on Tuesday to make sense of a confusing vote count and learn the future of their country — made similar pledges.
Patience. Caution. And constant reassurance to viewers about the integrity of the results. “We have to be incredibly transparent all through the night with what we know and what we don’t know,” said George Stephanopoulos, who will anchor the proceedings for ABC News.
To accommodate the idiosyncrasies of this pandemic-era campaign, networks are planning tweaks to the way some election nights looked in the past.
Real-time results will be displayed in the context of the total expected vote, including the absentee and mail-in ballots that will account for a high proportion of it. The usual metric, “precincts reporting,” is tied to in-person votes on Election Day, which producers expect to be potentially misleading.
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The “decision desks,” the teams of data experts at news organizations who project results, say they are not competing over who calls a race first. “We’re preparing the audience that this might not be over in one night,” said Susan Zirinsky, the president of CBS News.
And combating misinformation — be it from online mischief-makers or falsehoods from the commander in chief — is a priority, particularly in educating Americans that any delays in declaring a victor stem from care, not chicanery.
“Just because a count may take longer does not mean that something is necessarily wrong,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “It may not even mean that it’s a close race. We have to constantly remind the viewer that patience will be needed and this may take some time in critical states, and that doesn’t mean anything is untoward.”
That TV networks bear this burden is partly a symptom of the country’s broken information culture, in which partisan news sources and specious social media rumors can overwhelm careful journalism.
There is also open concern among Democrats that President Trump may seize on early returns and declare himself the victor, hoping that voters’ perceptions overwhelm reality.
“I don’t think we can censor the candidates,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “But we have to be vigilant about putting whatever comments are made in context, with everything we know about where the race stands, where the law stands, where the votes are.”
Fox News, home to several of Mr. Trump’s most loyal media allies, will receive particular scrutiny. The network’s election telecast will be led by the anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, although pro-Trump opinion stars like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham are likely to pop in occasionally, said Jay Wallace, the president of Fox News Media, who oversees news coverage.
Asked if he would put Mr. Trump on the air if the president dialed into the Fox control room on election night, Mr. Wallace said: “Honestly, we’d have to see what was going on.” But he called that scenario “unlikely,” in part because Mr. Trump’s preferred opinion hosts won’t be guiding the broadcast.
“I wouldn’t think he would call in, knowing that the squad is on that is on,” Mr. Wallace said. He added, “Whatever he were to say wouldn’t sway anything when it comes to what we’re counting.”
That was a reference to Fox News’s decision desk, which has a track record of independence and accuracy. Arnon Mishkin, the consultant who leads the operation, is known for holding his ground during an on-air confrontation in 2012 when the Republican strategist Karl Rove questioned his projection that Barack Obama would be re-elected. Mr. Mishkin, like vote counters at rival networks, will be sequestered from the anchor team on election night, an effort that news organizations say shields the decision desk from competitive pressures.
In 2018, Fox News was 50 minutes ahead of any other network in projecting that the Democrats would take control of the House of Representatives. (“I know a lot of listeners out there, their heads are exploding,” the anchor Chris Wallace told viewers.)
Each television network makes its own state-by-state projections. But the projections rely on raw voting data from a handful of shared sources.
One group of networks — ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC — collaborate on an exit-polling operation, administered by Edison Research. The Associated Press, which has an expansive vote-tracking effort, conducts its own count. Fox News, starting in 2018, relies on a proprietary model that draws from The A.P.
Besides the “magic wall” maps and flag-strewn graphics, the networks will trot out a few gizmos to keep viewers tuned in over what could be a long night — or week, or month. CBS News, for instance, is broadcasting from a recently built set overlooking Times Square, in the studio that housed MTV’s “Total Request Live.”
A poll by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that more than half of Americans thought it could take a week or longer to determine the results (although Mr. Trump declared on Twitter on Friday, “The Election should END on November 3rd”). Three-quarters of those surveyed said they expected some news outlets to “rush to announce a winner.”
Mr. Oppenheim, of NBC News, said he was keenly aware of his responsibilities. “It’s possible we will have a clear outcome on election night at a reasonable hour, and I don’t want the audience to be suspicious of that,” he said. “It’s possible we won’t have an outcome for several days, or several weeks.”
In 2000, when networks twice erroneously declared a winner in Florida, Mr. Oppenheim was working as a production assistant at MSNBC. “Those of us who have grown up in the last 20 years of television journalism understand that election nights can take any number of surprising directions,” he said. “Our job is to be prepared for all of them.”
Did you catch Steve Harvey’s “Funderdome” on ABC? How about “The World’s Best” on CBS, “The Contender” on Epix, or “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge” on Amazon Prime? Or the Christian-themed dramas “A.D. The Bible Continues” on NBC and “Messiah” on Netflix?
No? Well, you’re hardly alone. And the man behind the string of flops is Mark Burnett, the legendary TV producer who shaped Donald Trump’s image from “The Apprentice” through his 2016 inauguration. Like his greatest creation, Mr. Trump — who sought and then lost an idiotic television ratings war on Thursday night with Joe Biden — Mr. Burnett seems to be struggling to keep his grip on the cultural moment.
Mr. Burnett’s story has been told often, and until 2016 he was eager to help tell it — how he reshaped American television with “Survivor” in 2000 and how, with the 2004 start of “The Apprentice,” he “resurrected Donald Trump as an icon of American success,” as The New Yorker put it. He’s been in Mr. Trump’s ear ever since: He held a planning meeting for the 2016 inauguration in his Ritz-Carlton apartment, the event’s planner, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, wrote. His associates produced the Republican National Convention this summer, Michael Grynbaum and Annie Karni reported for The New York Times. When President Trump took the presidential helicopter from the hospital to the White House this month, panicked Twitter commentators compared an official video of his triumphal return to the work of the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. But Mr. Burnett was the artiste whose influence really shined through on the video, though a spokeswoman said he did not consult on it.
“The level of production coming out of the White House is something we would have appreciated having,” Bill Pruitt, a producer on the “The Apprentice,” said of the video’s specific camera angles and its particular obsession with helicopters, a longtime favorite prop of Mr. Burnett’s dating back to “Survivor.” “As is customary for this, the reality TV version of a presidential campaign, it seems they’re not striving as much for ‘four more years’ as they are ‘Season 2.’”
But that style may have fallen out of fashion. Mr. Burnett, 60, the defining TV impresario, salesman and deal maker of the aughts, hasn’t put his stamp on a bona fide hit since the debut of “The Voice” in 2011. He shaped reality TV’s bombastic, gimmicky and sometimes cruel early years. But the genre has matured and shifted in the streaming age to what are sometimes sweeter and more positive productions, like Netflix’s “Floor Is Lava” and “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.”
And Mr. Burnett, until 2016 one of the most prominent figures in Hollywood, has gone dark. His Trumpian gift for telling his own story — about his triumphant reinvention of a once-great studio, MGM, and his plan to bring Jesus Christ to entertainment — has foundered on the reality of corporate infighting, creative struggles and a religious streaming network that never got off the ground.
“The impact that he was going to have on the film and Christian community has kind of gone bust,” said Peter Bart, who was a top executive at MGM before a long run as editor in chief of the trade newspaper Variety. “If that’s your main mission and your legacy is Trump and maybe the failure of the next MGM — that’s not a good chapter in his life.”
The current chapter of Mr. Burnett’s career began in earnest when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the once-great studio that had recently emerged from bankruptcy, bought out Mr. Burnett’s production company in 2015 for $120 million, consummating an earlier $400 million deal. That put him in charge of the studio’s television division. MGM got his stake in long-running shows like “The Voice” and “Shark Tank,” and the promise of more of his magic. MGM’s chief executive, Gary Barber, blessed the acquisition in high corporate gobbledygook: “We believe this synergistic transaction will be very accretive,” he said in a statement.
But with Mr. Burnett inside, Mr. Barber now had a charismatic rival for the affection of the chairman of the company’s board, Kevin Ulrich. One source of tension between Mr. Burnett and his new boss, two former executives said, was the enthusiasm of Mr. Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, for faith-based programing. The couple are outspoken Christians, and in 2013 they had produced “The Bible” for the History Channel, with Ms. Downey cast as the Virgin Mary. They then founded Lightworkers Media, which MGM now controls, and had hopes that MGM would turn it into a powerhouse.
But MGM never invested enough in Lightworkers to turn it into more than some scattered programming and a little-watched television channel, Light TV, showing family-friendly reruns. MGM’s biggest bet through Lightworkers, the $100 million 2016 film “Ben Hur,” lost money. Repeated promises of a high-powered streaming service never materialized.
Mr. Burnett’s relationship with Mr. Trump has also shadowed his run at MGM. He had long been part of a kind of media industry kitchen cabinet for the developer, along with CNN’s chief, Jeff Zucker, who had put “The Apprentice” on NBC, and the talent agent Ari Emmanuel. He and Ms. Downey had typically supported Democrats (Ms. Downey wrote a check to Marianne Williamson’s 2014 California congressional campaign), and he said in 2016 that he wasn’t actually supporting his friend’s White House bid.
But although Mr. Burnett promised associates that his friendship with the president would be great for business, he was also intensely sensitive to criticism of his old friend. He objected in particular, two people present at the time said, when an MGM board member, Jason Hirschhorn, began sharply criticizing Mr. Trump in his newsletter, REDEF in 2016. Katie Martin Kelley, MGM’s spokeswoman, said Mr. Hirschhorn’s “public statements at the time caused friction for many people at MGM,” and Mr. Hirschhorn, who left the board in 2017, declined to comment.
Since the 2016 election, Mr. Burnett has gone to great lengths to keep a public distance from Mr. Trump, batting away suggestions that he helped with the Republican National Convention. “They are not in communication and he had no involvement with any of the president’s public activities around his hospitalization for Covid-19,” Ms. Kelley said in an email.
Mr. Trump is just one thread in the internal tension at MGM involving Mr. Burnett. He’s always been a difficult boss, and even before the pandemic, he was a man-about-town deal maker — not an office-bound manager. He’s had so little input in the successes of the company’s scripted division, including “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Fargo,” that the division’s leader, Steve Stark, was recently forced to clarify to The Hollywood Reporter that he still reports to Mr. Burnett. He played a role in the messy 2018 ouster of Mr. Barber, which has left the company operating without a chief executive. Now, MGM is subject to perennial acquisition rumors and dependent on factors it can’t control: It is hoping theaters will be packed for the release of a new James Bond film next year and that the culture will be ready for the return of “Live PD,” a Burnett acquisition that was canceled this summer amid the wave of revolt at police violence.
After Mr. Barber’s ouster, Mr. Burnett announced that he and Ms. Downey would raise $100 million to start a Lightworkers subscription service. But those plans, Ms. Kelley said, have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, though “conversations have and are expected to continue.” For now, Lightworkers is just producing content for MGM, and recently completed production on a feature film called “Resurrection.” It also scaled back its digital presence in July, taking much of its content off the internet, including articles by Charlotte Pence Bond, the daughter of Vice President Mike Pence. (One had the headline, “Are You Narcissistic? Let’s Find Out.”)
Mr. Burnett didn’t respond to interview requests directly or through an MGM spokeswoman. After years in the headlines, he is keeping his profile low, and his name didn’t even appear in a recent, gloomy Wall Street Journal assessment of MGM’s finances. Some of his old partners, like Les Moonves at CBS and Paul Telegdy at NBC, have been forced out of their positions, and a new generation of network executives doesn’t jump quite so quickly at his calls. But if he’s not quite the producing star he once was, he’s still closing deals. In 2018, Amazon Prime resurrected a show called “Eco-Challenge,” which Mr. Burnett started producing in the 1990s, though Amazon has dropped plans for a second season, MGM confirmed. When I asked MGM’s chief communications officer, Ms. Kelley, about the perception that Mr. Burnett had lost his creative touch, she responded with a litany of his long-running shows.
“In his capacity as an executive producer, he has produced more than 70 seasons of shows for ABC (‘Shark Tank,’ 12 seasons), CBS (‘Survivor’ 40 seasons), Fox (‘Beat Shazam,’ 4 seasons), NBC (‘The Voice,’ 19 seasons), and the most recently launched ‘World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge’ on Amazon Prime,” she said. “Combined, programs where he serves as an EP have generated 18 Emmy wins, and 150 nominations. Burnett’s TV division is consistently amongst the most profitable divisions of MGM.”
But the last great question for Mr. Burnett, of course, is Trump TV. Journalists often imagine that Mr. Trump will start a 24/7 news channel to the right of Fox News should he lose the presidency. But the best move of Mr. Trump’s career, tax returns obtained by The Times showed, was in reality, not news — his partnership with Mr. Burnett in “The Apprentice.” My colleague James Poniewozik wrote once that Mr. Trump’s problem is that “now there’s no Mark Burnett to impose retroactive logic on the chaos.”
People who have worked with Mr. Burnett say they can’t help imagining that he’s working all the angles on the final, realest reality show of all, following a former president back into the real world.