NEW YORK — Despite protests from Hollywood stars, NBC stood fast to its decision to hold a Thursday town hall with President Donald Trump at the same time that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, has a similar event on ABC.
Amy Schumer, Ben Stiller, Debra Messing, Seth Rogen, Jon Cryer, Jon Hamm, Sarah Silverman and Sterling K. Brown were among the actors beseeching NBC to change the scheduling through a letter sent to network leadership on Thursday.
Cesar Conde, chair of the NBC Universal News Group, said the network shared the frustration of critics of the dueling town halls. He said the decision was based on fairness, not business considerations.
“We aired a town hall with Vice-President Biden on Oct. 5 at 8 p.m.,” Conde said. “If we were to move our town hall with President Trump to a later time slot we would be violating our commitment to offer both campaigns access to the same audience and the same forum.”
NBC said it reached out to ABC, asking its rival to change the time of its Biden telecast, but was turned away. ABC scheduled its event last week; NBC announced its own town hall on Wednesday.
Thursday was supposed to be the night of the second of three Trump-Biden debates. After Trump tested positive for COVID-19, the Commission on Presidential Debates said it wanted to change the format from in-person to virtual, but Trump declined to participate.
So with the candidates suddenly free on a night they planned to debate, the networks jumped in with their own offers.
At a rally in North Carolina on Thursday, Trump called NBC “the worst” and said he was being set up with the town hall. He said the network went easy on Biden a week earlier by asking him “questions a child could answer.”
The letter signed by more than 100 Hollywood figures said NBC was “enabling the president’s bad behaviour” while undercutting the debate commission and doing a disservice to the 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,” said the letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press.
Besides the celebrity actors, signers of the letter included top Hollywood producers such as Aaron Sorkin, Ryan Murphy, J.J. Abrams, Seth MacFarlane, Greg Berlanti and Neal Baer.
Comic Conan O’Brien, in a deadpan Twitter post, said, “I can’t remember the last time I was this shocked by an NBC programming decision.” The reference was to NBC ditching him as “Tonight” show host in 2010.
NBC News figures have been quiet publicly, though MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, interviewing Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris on Wednesday, asked if she was “as mad as everybody else” about the decision to show both events at the same time. “I’m not touching that,” Harris replied.
To an extent, the uproar was reflective of a different time in television. Conde noted that the Trump town hall would be available later on its digital news platforms, YouTube and the Peacock streaming service.
AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
David Bauder, The Associated Press