George Stephanopoulos of ABC had it easy, steering an old-school Washington veteran through policy plans against a patriotic backdrop, while Savannah Guthrie of NBC had to navigate the stormy waters of QAnon, white supremacy and whether the virus-stricken president had pneumonia. (Despite repeated inquiries, he would not say.)
Viewers of Thursday’s dueling network town halls with President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. — which aired simultaneously in prime time, much to civic-minded critics’ chagrin — were treated to a pair of telecasts as starkly different as the candidates they featured.
On a night when Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump had been scheduled to meet on a single debate stage, television instead cleaved in two. Mr. Biden’s ABC town hall had all the fireworks of a vintage episode of “This Week With David Brinkley.” Mr. Trump’s NBC forum had all the subtlety of a professional wrestling match.
The election may hinge on which type of programming Americans want to spend the next four years watching.
Ms. Guthrie, an anchor on “Today,” welcomed viewers with a friendly greeting — “We want to say, right off the top, this is not how things were supposed to go tonight” — that only hinted at the stakes for her and her network.
There was no debate on Thursday because Mr. Trump withdrew, refusing to commit to a virtual matchup. Mr. Biden agreed to an ABC town hall, and NBC booked Mr. Trump for the same night — and the same time, prompting a furious backlash. NBC stars like Mandy Moore denounced the network, and the MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow chastised her bosses on the air.
But if Mr. Trump expected an easy night on NBC, former home to his show “The Apprentice,” he did not anticipate Ms. Guthrie, whose background as a former litigator quickly came in handy.
In an out-of-the-gate barrage, Ms. Guthrie pressed Mr. Trump repeatedly on his medical condition, if he had taken a coronavirus test before the first presidential debate, if he would denounce white supremacy and if he opposed QAnon — questions that Mr. Trump, who typically sits down with friendly interviewers, had avoided facing.
The president is a skilled dodger who has outmaneuvered his interlocutors for four years. But Ms. Guthrie repeatedly interrupted his filibuster attempts, throwing Mr. Trump off kilter.
“I just don’t know about QAnon,” the president protested at one point, declining to criticize the fringe conspiracy group. “You do know!” Ms. Guthrie shot back, respectful but relentless.
At another moment, when Mr. Trump brandished a sheaf of papers to rebut a point — “I have things right here that will show you exactly the opposite!” — Ms. Guthrie revealed her own set of documents. “Me, too!” she retorted.
After 20 minutes of Ms. Guthrie’s grilling, Mr. Trump’s advisers appeared concerned. His communications director, Alyssa Farah, approached Ms. Guthrie during the first commercial break, and then joined three other aides gathered with the president onstage.
Even as Ms. Guthrie solicited questions from voters, she kept up the pressure, cajoling Mr. Trump into a sidelong acknowledgment of a New York Times report about his $400 million debt load, which he previously had refused to confirm. And she confronted him with a concern that even some of his allies share: “You’re the president,” Ms. Guthrie said. “You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.”
On ABC, the mood was different. Mr. Biden and Mr. Stephanopoulos engaged in a sober policy conversation more suited to a Sunday morning public-affairs broadcast.
Seated on a drab blue set, legs crossed, the men discussed the pandemic, taxes, the environment and the Supreme Court. When Mr. Stephanopoulos followed up on the effect of the coronavirus on the Democrat’s tax plans — “Mr. Vice President, let me press you on that” — Mr. Biden replied: “Absolutely. That’s a great question.” He went on to cite a study from the financial firm Moody’s.
Later, when Mr. Stephanopoulos nudged Mr. Biden to wrap up an answer, the candidate apologized. “Not at all,” Mr. Stephanopoulos responded politely.
The tone tensed up when Mr. Biden declined, as he has several times, to fully explain his view on expanding the Supreme Court. “Don’t voters have a right to know where you stand?” Mr. Stephanopoulos asked.
That did not keep the Republican strategist Ari Fleischer from complaining about what he deemed an overly easy night for Mr. Biden. “NBC is an interrogation,” he wrote on Twitter. “ABC is a picnic.” Sean Hannity, on Fox News, was more explicit in accusing Ms. Guthrie of bias, saying she interrupted Mr. Trump too often.
Critics of NBC are likely to argue that Mr. Trump, despite the grilling, still enjoyed a full hour of prime-time across NBC, MSNBC and CNBC, the networks that simulcast his town hall. And all after he refused to attend the scheduled debate with Mr. Biden.
Moments after the Trump event wrapped up, Ms. Maddow greeted her MSNBC viewers with brow firmly arched. “Well,” she declared, “that happened.”
Tiffany Hsu contributed reporting.