When Iran released its American hostages in 1981, 15-year-old Juju Chang hopped on her bike to deliver the breaking news like a town crier while pedaling through her neighborhood.
Today, she has a slightly bigger audience.
As co-anchor of ABC’s “Nightline,” she’s reaching as many as 4 million viewers, more than double the number who tuned in a year ago. That staggering increase came after a decision to move temporarily to an earlier time slot and focus almost exclusively on the coronavirus crisis.
It’s a strategy that mirrors the show’s origin as a vehicle to keep the nation informed about the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
“We’ve come full circle,” Chang said earlier this month while spending time with her children and husband, former NBC News President Neal Shapiro.
It was the first time the former “Good Morning America” news anchor had been able to be with her loved ones in six weeks.
Instead of making the commute to their home an hour away, Chang had been staying at her Manhattan apartment, less than 2 miles from the ABC studio. The closest thing to family time was trading comments with her three sons via speaker phone as they simultaneously watched the sports documentary “The Last Dance.”
She was able to observe firsthand how New Yorkers are adjusting to the pandemic, from the plastic sheeting that Lyft drivers have hung in their cars to the sight of joggers starting to hit the pavement again.
“For the first few weeks, it was a ghost town. All I would hear were ambulances going down the street,” Chang said. “But more and more, I see people trying to get back to some sort of semblance of normal life. I think about that when we’re telling our stories.”
That personal touch has been a hallmark of the program since it was launched in 1980, and why it’s survived while late-night comics have come and gone.
Founding anchor Ted Koppel could be too serious for his own good — Joe Piscopo did a killer impression of the newsman on ‘Saturday Night Live,” somberly reporting on the shooting of Buckwheat — but he held fast to his belief in long-form journalism decades after the hostages returned home.
Byron Pitts, who alternates hosting duties with Chang, remembers a program in which Koppel held a town meeting in Chicago about gun violence. He allowed an audience member to go on at length about her personal experiences.
“The room froze,” Pitts said. “When the woman was done talking, Ted said something like, ‘I’ve been in this business long enough to know when enough has been said. No more needs to be said. Goodnight from Chicago.’ ”
In recent years, “Nightline” did less of those kind of programs, switching to a fluffier format — shorter pieces, pop-culture profiles, trivia questions — but that approach went out the window when the coronavirus hit.
A 40th-anniversary special planned for late March was postponed, replaced by an interview with Koppel reflecting on the show’s roots in the Iranian hostage ordeal.
“There was a national obsession with that story — very similar in a sense to what we find now, except that American lives were not as directly affected as they are now by the coronavirus,” the veteran newsman told Chang in an interview done through laptops. “This is a much bigger crisis.”
Chang would have preferred to chat with her predecessor in person. But she’s finding ways to adjust.
In a recent interview via Skype, a New Jersey nurse spoke of having to tell a family by phone that their loved one had passed away. The patient’s wife insisted that they FaceTime with the dead man. As the nurse watched, the man’s son begged “Papi” not to leave him alone in this world.
“Both the nurse and I were getting teary,” Chang said. “We were having this shared moment, through a Skype call. That’s when you realize that the iPad being used for our interview was making the same emotional connections that the family did [through a phone]. Maybe we as a society have just grown accustomed to this way of communicating.”
Not that all the 40 or so staffers on the “Nightline” team are limiting themselves to their cubicles. Some have been venturing out in the New York area to assemble feature stories, often sporting colorful, themed masks to lighten the mood.
For a recent series on how the virus has divided America, Chang strolled around Bronx neighborhoods. Earlier this month, Pitts walked down Broadway with a out-of-work performer from “Book of Mormon.”
“JuJu and I are old-school dogs in this business,” Pitts said. “We love the shoe leather part of our profession, so it’s always our itch to go and talk to those people. We just have to take the proper precautions.”
The anchors also have to be wary of making it tough for viewers to get to sleep. Comcast has seen a 40% upswing in late-night viewing among its cable subscribers, mostly between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.
In a survey conducted by Sleephelp.org, nearly one in five respondents said they were having trouble sleeping since the pandemic hit. A third of those affected blamed what they were seeing on the news.
“Nightline” strives to include uplifting stories. Recently it saluted a 10-year-old California girl who designed a contraption allowing her to hug her grandparents, using shower curtains, zip-top bags and a hot-glue gun. Pitts, who wrote a 2009 book about his faith, sometimes ends his broadcasts with a Bible verse.
“We’re always trying to find good stories about hope and redemption, something that gives you some uplift,” Chang said. “That being said, this is the kind of story you can’t always sugarcoat.”
But heartbreak can bring viewers together, too.
“When you haven’t gotten your stimulus check or have been laid off, you’re wanting stories about other people who have similar frustrations,” said executive producer Steven Baker. “In a strange way, it can be comforting to folks.”
Baker won’t predict how long his show will continue its all-pandemic format or remain in the earlier time slot. But he’s convinced new viewers will stick with it.
“ ‘Nightline’ may have had its peaks and valleys, but right now we can say one thing,” Pitts said. “When our country was challenged, we rose to the occasion.”