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The anchors on the premiere telecast of 20/20 were renowned Esquire magazine editor Harold Hayes, who also served as the program's senior producer, and famed Time art critic Robert Hughes. The show's debut received largely harsh reviews; The New York Times described it as "dizzyingly absurd" and The Washington Post denounced it as "the trashiest stab at candycane journalism yet." In his autobiography Roone: A Memoir, Roone Arledge recalled that probably the most embarrassing part of that initial program was the Claymation segments featuring caricatures representing then-President Jimmy Carter (singing "Georgia on My Mind") and Walter Cronkite (closing the show intoning, "That's the way it was"). As a result of the scathing reviews, serious and drastic changes were immediately made: Hayes and Hughes were fired (as was original executive producer Bob Shanks), and a then semi-retired Hugh Downs was recruited to take on the role of sole host on the following week's program.
Also featured in the premiere telecast of 20/20, the opening sequence consisted of a pair of eyeglasses, whose lenses showed colored bars, which are often seen in the SMPTE test pattern (used when television stations were off the air between sign-off and sign-on). The eyeglasses were keyed over a yellow background, and rotated to its rear position to reveal the 20/20 studio.
Under Downs as host, 20/20 changed into a more standard yet unique newsmagazine and received kinder reviews from critics. The program was originally launched as a summer replacement series; it was then presented on a once-a-month basis during the 1978–1979 television season, before being given a regular weekly timeslot on Thursdays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time beginning May 31, 1979. Ratings were generally very good during the summer months during its eight years on Thursday nights despite competition from Knots Landing on CBS and Hill Street Blues on NBC. It was around this time that the program started using the Brock Brower-written signoff line "We're in touch, so you be in touch" to end each program, which continues to be used to now (the program also used the line "Around the world and into your home, the stories that touch your life" as the introduction during the show's opening titles for much of the 1990s).
Barbara Walters joined the program in 1979 in a role something less than a co-anchor and soon became a regular special contributor in the fall of 1981. In 1984, she became Hugh Downs' equal, thus reuniting a duo which had already anchored together on NBC's Today from 1964 to 1971. The team would remain together on-air for the next 15 years.
In the fall of 1987, 20/20 was moved to Fridays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern; while in that timeslot, it ranked at 21st place in the annual Nielsen ratings by the 1991–1992 season. It aired in that same Friday time slot until the fall of 2001, when ABC briefly replaced the program with the scripted family drama series Once and Again, only for 20/20 to return to the lineup again four months later; it has basically retained the timeslot ever since. While the series briefly moved to the 8:00 p.m. timeslot on October 12, 2007, it reverted to its usual time two weeks later.
In 1997, a second weekly edition of 20/20 made its debut on Thursday evenings. For a time from 1998 to 2000, ABC News chose to consolidate their newsmagazine programs by combining 20/20and Primetime Live into a singular brand under the 20/20 name and format in order to compete with Dateline NBC, which itself ran for four nights a week at the time (Dateline has since been reduced to twice weekly airings). At its peak, 20/20 ran on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays, in addition to its longtime Friday timeslot; these additional nights of 20/20 were joined by the younger-skewing 20/20 Downtown on Thursday nights. In 2000, ABC reinstated Primetime under the title Primetime Thursday, and spun off 20/20 Downtown as a separate newsmagazine simply titled Downtown. By early 2002, 20/20 once again was airing only in its original Friday timeslot.
On March 3, 1999, Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who was infamously revealed to have been involved in an affair with then-President Bill Clinton a few years earlier, was interviewed by Barbara Walters on the program; that particular edition of 20/20was watched by an estimated 70 million viewers, which ABC stated was a record audience for a news program.
After Downs' retirement in 1999, Walters became the solo anchor of 20/20. This lasted until John Miller was hired as a permanent co-host of the program in 2002; Miller never got very comfortable in the anchor chair, and a year later, he jumped at the chance to rejoin law enforcement. For a few months in early 2003, Barbara Walters temporarily anchored solo again. However, in May of that year, John Stossel – an investigative correspondent for the program who was behind the controversial, though popular, "Give Me a Break" segments – was named as Walters' new co-anchor. As one of the first veteran anchors, Barbara Walters chose to go into semi-retirement as a broadcast journalist in 2004. However, she remained with 20/20 as a frequent contributor to the show. ABC News correspondent Elizabeth Vargas was promoted to the co-anchor position.
In September 2009, before the start of its 31st season, John Stossel announced he would leave the program after 28 years to pursue a new weekly show on the Fox Business Network. Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer also contribute reports. On December 10, 2009, ABC News announced that Good Morning America news anchor Chris Cuomo was promoted to co-host 20/20 alongside Elizabeth Vargas. On January 29, 2013, it was announced that Chris Cuomo would leave ABC News and 20/20 for CNN to co-host the cable network's new morning news program, New Day; on the same day, ABC announced David Muir would join Elizabeth Vargas as the new co-anchor of the program, in addition to continuing as weekend anchor of ABC World News (a role he retains after being appointed to main anchor of the since-renamed ABC World News Tonight in September 2014).
The program expanded once again on March 2, 2013, with the debut of 20/20 Saturday, which mainly features rebroadcasts of archived stories from previous editions of 20/20 (mainly those dating back as early as 2008) in the same single topic format as the flagship Friday broadcasts. 20/20 Saturday airs outside of college football season, at either 9:00 p.m. as a two-hour broadcast formatted as separate hour-long episodes centered on two different topics or at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time as an hour-long broadcast, depending on the programs that precede it that given week. Barbara Walters originally served as host of the program until her retirement from regular television broadcasting in May 2014, after which the hosting duties were turned over the anchors of the Friday editions.
Though 20/20 still occasionally utilizes a multiple topic format, the program has seen a gradual shift towards single topic editions since the late 2000s (similar to what has occurred with Dateline NBC since around the same timeframe, although continuing to include a wider range of topics), either in the form of various story packages that relate to the topic or a focus on a single story. These include:
- "My Secret Self: A Story of Transgender Children"
- "Romance Morphs Into Horror Story"
- "Waiting on the World to Change", a year in the lives of children in one of the poorest cities in America
- "Scared Stiff: Worried in America"
- "Caught on Tape" on how the proliferation of cameras in our society has impacted modern society
- "Seeing and Believing: The Power of Faith"
- "Privilege in America: Who's Shutting You Out"
- "Sweet Revenge", a report on the differences between female and male brains
- "When Is Young Too Young?", which reports on teenagers and kids that have adult traits, like an 11-year-old female race car driver or a 10-year-old boy who works as a matador. This particular episode includes the conversations with the mother of pilot trainee Jessica Dubroff, who died at the age of seven when the plane she was flying crashed not long after takeoff.
A two-hour special edition of the program that aired on December 15, 2008, Drama High: The Making of a High School Musical, documented the journey of students at Westfield High, a predominantly white school in Virginia as it staged The Wiz, the black musical adaption of The Wizard of Oz. This program was a departure from 20/20 's usual format in that it featured no correspondent or narration to tell the story, instead telling it through the students' intimate video diaries.
A two-hour special entitled Last Days on Earth, which aired in August 2006, discussed seven different scenarios in which life on Earth could end; the edition has since aired on History.
"Hidden America: Children of the Plains", a 20/20 special hosted by Diane Sawyer that aired on October 14, 2011, reported on the children of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, the poorest Indian reservation in the poorest county in the United States.
|Created by||Roone Arledge|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||41|
|No. of episodes||500+|
|David Sloan (2005–present)|
|Running time||22 minutes|
|21 Laps-Adelstein Productions |
Double Wide Productions/NestEgg Productions (season 1)
Mr. Big Shot Fancy-Pants Productions (seasons 2–4)
Lyonsberry Productions (seasons 5–6)
20th Century Fox Television
|Original channel||ABC News|
|Original airing||June 6, 1978|