With the premiere on June 6, 1978 of its program 20/20, ABC Television launched its first ever news magazine. The youngest and the most troubled television network in the late 1970s, ABC was engaging in a major initiative to revise its news programming under the tutelage of its newly appointed president, Roone Arledge. Arledge targeted a number of ways in which ABC could improve its news division with the goal being to attract the average American viewer rather than news junkies. One result of this push was 20/20, which was based on the success of the CBS program 60 Minutes, which, since its premiere in 1968, had enjoyed significant popularity as a different means to present news through the use of longer segments and non-traditional news time slots.
The very first 20/20 program was hosted by Time magazine critic Robert Hughes and former Esquire editor Harold Hayes. The kick-off story featured a report on rabbit abuse at greyhound tracks, and signally failed to attract critical enthusiasm. The initial reviews ranged from "dizzyingly absurd" from The New York Times to "the trashiest stab at candycane journalism yet" from The Washington Post. Arledge immediately realized that the program's concept had to be reworked if it was to succeed. He rearranged the show's focus and introduced a new anchor, the longtime Today show personality Hugh Downs. Under the beloved Downs, 20/20 thrived and took on more of a consumer focus. In 1984, Arledge decided to bring on Barbara Walters, also a Today show alumnus but more recently a rising star within ABC. The combination of the two anchors was a hit with the viewers and, through 20/20, Walters and Downs earned a place among the most respected journalists in television history.
20/20 has featured countless groundbreaking and exclusive interviews with world-famous figures drawn from many different arenas of public life. Often controversial, they have ranged from politics and show business to sportsmen, and even criminals. Among the most memorable interviewees have been Cuba's president, Fidel Castro; Bill and Hillary Clinton, appearing at the height of the Whitewater controversy; Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis, who revealed for the first time that he was stricken with AIDS and had been HIV-positive when he competed in the 1988 Olympics; and former White House intern and presidential paramour, Monica Lewinsky. Also contributing to 20/20's success with viewers has been its numerous health-related stories, one of the most personal involving Downs being shadowed by a crew who filmed him during his knee procedure and subsequent recovery.
Encouraged by the strong showing of 20/20 and the continued popularity of the rival 60 Minutes, and spurred on by NBC's competitive bid into the news magazine forum with Dateline, ABC has created other news magazines over the years. With NBC's Dateline airing up to five times per week, in 1997 ABC decided to increase 20/ 20 showings to several nights a week. While this proved mildly successful, the network made a more radical move for the 1998-1999 season, combining all ABC news magazines (notably Prime TimeLive) under the 20/20 brand. Airing at least three times weekly, 20/20 expanded its original consumer focus to embrace the more investigative pieces and hard journalism that had marked PrimeTimeLive, as well as to include more features on the day's top news. Additionally, Downs and Walters were no longer the sole anchors of the expanded program, but shared responsibilities with several other top ABC journalists, notably Sam Donaldson, Diane Sawyer, Charles Gibson, and Connie Chung.
—Alyssa L. Falwell
Gunther, Marc. The House that Roone Built: The Inside Story of ABC News. Boston, Little, Brown, 1994.