NBC Actors, Producers Protest Decision to Host Trump Town Hall at Same Time as Biden Event - WSJ

NBC News is under fire for its decision to give President Trump airtime for a town hall meeting Thursday night to run opposite a previously scheduled Joe Biden town hall on rival ABC News.

The network is in the unusual position of having to defend itself from people both external and internal for providing Mr. Trump airtime to make his case for a second term after he refused to participate in a debate with Mr. Biden that was originally scheduled for Thursday. The format of the debate was changed to virtual after Mr. Trump tested positive for the coronavirus and had to be hospitalized.

Some current and former NBC employees including former “Today” anchor Katie Couric have criticized the network for forcing viewers to choose which candidate to watch rather than carrying Mr. Trump’s event later in the evening or on a different night.

On-air talent, executives and producers at the NBC-owned MSNBC news channel have also expressed consternation at the decision of the network to put Mr. Trump on head-to-head against Mr. Biden, several people inside the network said. MSNBC is known for its left-leaning prime-time commentators including Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. An NBC News spokesman declined to comment on any tensions with MSNBC.

More than 100 prominent actors, writers and producers including many who are involved with NBC television shows are also protesting the decision

In a letter to NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Shell, NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde and Brian Roberts, chief executive of NBCUniversal parent Comcast Corp. , the group said the decision to give Mr. Trump such a platform after his refusal to debate Mr. Biden is “enabling the president’s bad behavior while undercutting the Presidential Debate Commission and doing a disservice to the American public.”

The letter doesn’t criticize NBC for putting the president on its airwaves, but rather that the network is allowing Mr. Trump to “counterprogram” his rival.

“We are simply asking that NBC air the president’s town hall either before or after Vice President Biden’s so that American voters can have the opportunity to watch both,” the letter said.

Among the signers of the letter are prominent current and former NBCUniversal stars and producers including “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman and cast members Sterling K. Brown, Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, as well as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” Executive Producer Neal Baer. “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, who recently agreed to a large production deal with NBCUniversal, signed, as did Alec Baldwin, who portrays the president on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Mr. Conde issued a statement, saying: “We share in the frustration that our event will initially air alongside the first half of ABC’s broadcast with Vice President Biden. Our decision is motivated only by fairness, not business considerations.”

At an event earlier Thursday, Mr. Trump referred to Comcast as “Con-cast” and called NBC “the worst.” In a tweet, he criticized C-Span anchor Steve Scully, who was set to moderate the second presidential debate that would have taken place Oct. 15 had it not been canceled. Mr. Scully was suspended indefinitely by C-Span for falsely claiming that his Twitter account had been hacked.

Mr. Conde said that NBC scheduled Mr. Trump at 8 p.m. because it had given the same slot to Mr. Biden in a previous town hall and it wanted to keep all things equal between the two candidates. Also, starting at 9 p.m. would still have conflicted with the ABC broadcast, which lasts for 90 minutes, while NBC’s is an hourlong event, he added.

“We hope voters will watch both discussions—ours will be available at any time, free and on-demand on YouTube, Peacock and all our digital news platforms,” Mr. Conde said.

NBC News tried to persuade ABC News to move its event to later in the evening, but the request was rebuffed, two people familiar with the matter said.

NBC will also carry the event on its CNBC financial-news channel and its Spanish-language network, Telemundo, as it did with its Biden town hall.

After Mr. Trump rejected holding the Oct. 15 debate virtually, ABC News, a unit of Walt Disney Co. , then landed Mr. Biden for a town-hall style meeting to be held in Philadelphia at 8 p.m. NBC News subsequently negotiated its Trump event for the same time.

Both events are employing safety measures to avoid any spread of the coronavirus. Mr. Trump and his interviewer, Savannah Guthrie, of NBC’s “Today” show will be 12 feet apart. The audience will be small and has been tested and will be masked. A similar approach is being taken by ABC News for its event.

—Ben Mullin contributed to this article.

Write to Joe Flint at joe.flint@wsj.com