1 9 7 8 – Current (USA)
This hour-long current affairs show from ABC has always featured award-winning journalists covering social issues and current events.
The show set out to emulate the success of CBS’ 60 Minutes but got off to a disastrous start. The elements were similar to those in 60 Minutes – personality profiles, mini-documentaries, hard-hitting investigative reports – but the coverage was so shallow, and the production so full of gimmicks, that the premiere telecast received devastating reviews. Variety likened it to The National Enquirer.
In one of the fastest cast changes in history, producer Bob Shanks fired his two cohosts – former magazine editor Harold Hayes and Australian art critic Robert Hughes – after just one telecast, brought in old pro Hugh Downs, and began tinkering with the contents.
Subsequent shows were better received, though 20/20 did not rival 60 Minutes as an audience attraction. Correspondents included Geraldo Rivera with investigative reports and Thomas Hoving on popular culture.
Later contributors included hard-news reporter Tom Jarriel and showbiz correspondent Bob Brown, along with in-your-face investigative reporter John Stossel. Sometimes Stossel got a little too pushy; in one of the show’s more celebrated moments, he was physically assaulted on camera by an angry wrestler.
Dr Carl Sagan – originally announced as a regular contributor on science – was seen relatively infrequently.
At the start of the 1984-1985 season, Barbara Walters was formally promoted from correspondent to co-host. Here, as in her specials, she was known primarily for her unique interviews, as when she asked feared Libyan dictator Mu’ammar Qaddafi directly, “Are you mad?” (His response: “Absolutely not.”)
Nearly every telecast of 20/20 seemed to headline something sensational or celebrity-oriented, such as a profile of the latest rock star or an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Elvis Presley, or something – anything – concerning sex.
There were also more substantive features over the years, among them a widely acclaimed special telecast on the secret Iranian hostage negotiations (aired just after the hostages were released), an exposé on the hazards of aluminium wiring, and Geraldo Rivera’s report from inside war-torn Laos.
Two of 20/20‘ s most widely publicised reports were aired in early 1991: Barbara Walters’s exclusive interview with Gulf War hero General Norman Schwarzkopf on 15 March, shortly after the hostilities ended; and less than a month later a vivid film of a real exorcism being performed by a Roman Catholic priest. Critics called it sensationalistic, but audiences were huge.
Not every scoop worked out as well. Undoubtedly the show’s most embarrassing moment occurred just months before, in October 1990, following an interview with former child star Buckwheat of the Little Rascals. The man turned out to be an imposter – the real Buckwheat had died ten years earlier.
In 1997, a second night of 20/20 was launched, and from then until 2002 the series fluctuated between two and four nights per week, for a time incorporating the staff of the discontinued Primetime Live.
The Thursday version, specialising in urban-themed stories, was titled 20/20 Downtown in the fall of 1999 and featured rotating hosts Vargas, Quinones, Schadler and McFadden (the Downtown name was sometimes used for short-run news hours in subsequent years as well).
Hugh Downs retired in 1999, but Barbara Walters didn’t get a new permanent co-anchor until 2002 when John Miller was hired.