George Stephanopoulos has been many things over the years. A political operative. A TV anchor. In his next project, he’s taking on a decidedly different role.
In “Power Trip — Those Who Seek Power and Those Who Chase Them,” a new eight-part series set to stream on Hulu starting September 25, Stephanopoulos will serve as an analyst and adviser to a group of seven ambitious young “embed” reporters covering the 2022 midterm elections for ABC News. The show mixes on-the-ground reportage with the sort of mentor-student relationship that plays a central part in popular reality programs that range from “The Voice” to “Restaurant: Impossible.”
The conceit offers “a fresh way of covering politics,” says Stephanopoulos, in an interview. “This is a different way of doing it, through the lens of these young reporters on the ground.”
All the nation’s big TV-news outlets have built new massive streaming-video hubs, the better to capture attention from younger viewers more inclined to seek out the latest headlines from social media or on-demand video. What they haven’t done quite yet is develop programming tailored for that audience. While there are some exceptions, the bulk of streaming news shows launched so far rely on the usual presentation of an anchor sitting behind a desk.
“Journalists recognized they can tell their stories more directly and more genuinely without having the intermediary of a conventional newscast,” says Tim Hanlon, who advises media and advertising companies as CEO of Vertere Group. “The question is how does it all get paid for? Models are in process.”
“Power Trip” has few of the trappings of the evening news or Sunday public-affairs program. The seven embeds will fan out across the nation, potentially covering closely-watched Senate races in Pennsylvania or Georgia; examining voter trends in Texas or hot issues in California. As they set about to find stories and headlines for ABC, they will check in with Stephanopoulos, who will have to be poised to advise at a moment’s notice, depending on how stories develop.
“These are young reporters in their 20s. Lots of ambition. Lots of drive. Not so much experience,” says Stephanopoulos, who notes that audiences may well see storylines that involve the embeds’ work as much as they do the news they cover.
ABC News and other networks have for decades relied on young embeds to serve as their eyes and ears across the country as various candidates campaign for higher office. ABC typically doesn’t send out embeds for midterms, says Stephanopoulos, but the issues Americans are voting on are so important and the polling margins for a Democratic or Republican victory are so thin that executives felt the effort would be warranted. “We always remembered in these campaigns hearing great stories from our embeds,” the anchor says.
Many of the biggest backers of TV news are turning to streaming to court viewers who may no longer watch broadcast or cable TV as often as news aficionados did in the past. They have good reason. Approximately 84% of U.S. adults said they often or sometimes get news from a smartphone, computer, or tablet, according to a 2021 study by Pew Research Center, including 51% who say they do so often. The portion that gets news from digital devices continues to outpace those who get news from television, Pew found.
There have been some early efforts to shake up how news works in the streaming era. ABC News venerable “20/20,” for example, has retooled itself as a two-hour true-crime mystery for Hulu, as executives found subscribers were eager to watch that sort of storytelling. One early effort at the now-scuttled CNN+ featured anchor Kate Bolduan giving subscribers a quick rundown of “5 Things” they needed to know before their day kicked into high gear. The show typically lasted 20 minutes or less. Fox Nation has tapped various personnel at Fox News Channel to talk about hobbies and passions, like cooking or taking part in a book club.
Still, many of the broadband-news efforts, which include services such as NBC News Now and ABC News Live, rely heavily on anchor-desk formats and documentary-style programming. There’s a growing sense streaming viewers are eager to see something else.
Giving viewers a look behind the scenes could prove important, says Chris Wells, an associate professor of emerging media studies at Boston University. In an era when politicians have cast aspersions on newsgathering and the fragmentation of media has led to news outlets that cater to partisan interests, he says, some consumers crave a deeper view on how journalists work. “A lot of citizens don’t really understand what journalists are doing,” he says, and they want to see “not only the final story, but a little bit of the process behind it.”
People have long turned to CNN and CBS News and their brethren for a definitive account of what’s happening in the world. They may continue to do so even as they consume more information via social media, says Devan Rosen, professor of emerging media at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications. Younger people have grown more media literate, he says and understand that “algorithmically fed news” passed along via Twitter or Instagram “is not necessarily the right news or even the good news or what you should be reading, he adds. “There is a real opportunity for any one of the networks to think about what kind of format would reach the younger generation.”
ABC News has a decided interest in figuring it out. The Disney-backed unit recently launched a studio aimed at devising concepts for Hulu, Disney+ and other parts of its parent company’s media portfolio, which is tilting more heavily toward streaming. Stephanopoulos, who launched his own production company in October of last year, is expected to create projects suited for all parts of the Disney empire. Recent work has included an interview with former M16 spy Christopher Steele and a behind-the-scenes examination of the takedown of a terrorist threat that could have rivaled the Oklahoma City bombing.
George Stephanopoulos Productions has enlisted a group of savvy producers to help launch “Power Trip.” Ted Bourne, who has worked on the Showtime political documentary series “The Circus” and A&E’s documentary series “The First 48,” serves as an executive producer, along with Heather Riley, a longtime Stephanopoulos associate who earlier this year was named executive editorial producer of political programming and affairs at ABC News. Jonathan Greenberger, ABC News vice president and Washington bureau chief, will work as an executive contributor to the program, and his team manages the embedded reporters.
Among the group of young journalists are Libby Cathey, a reporter for ABCNews.com who covers the White House, Capitol Hill and breaking political news who has experience working for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and Snapchat. Abby Cruz is a producer/reporter for ABC News’ race and culture unit who fluent in Spanish and has worked for Washington City Paper. Paulina Tam is a segment producer for “Nightline” who once embedded with the Newark Police Department.
One week’s episode could center on what’s happening in a particular state, says Stephanopoulos, or on one reporter’s efforts to make headway with a source or story. But the team will also keep an eye on issues like how President Biden or former President Trump influence campaigns; the effects of the recent Supreme Court decision on abortion have on voters; and voting security.
The hope, says Stephanopoulos, is that “Power Trip” is worth taking more than once. If the initial series works well, the anchor says, he hopes ABC News will use it for the presidential elections in 2024.
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