Growing up in Cherry Hill, Janice Johnston used to cut TV grids out of the newspaper and paste them into a scrapbook
“I was very obsessed with what’s going on ABC vs. what’s airing on CBS. And, you know, where’s Happy Days in relation to Barney Miller and Laverne & Shirley,” said Johnston. After 22 years at ABC News, the six-time Emmy winner was promoted in January to executive producer of the two-hour news magazine 20/20 (9 p.m. Fridays, ABC).
She’s only the fourth person to lead the show in its nearly 43-year history, and is the first woman and the first Black producer to do so.
“As a kid, my favorite shows were all on ABC and the fact that I get to be the EP of a two-hour show in prime time is not lost on me at all,” said Johnston, whose elementary school class trips to WPVI (now known as 6ABC) and her high school senior project, interning at KYW’s People Are Talking with Jerry Penacoli, turned out to be formative experiences.
Johnston attended Haddonfield Friends School until seventh grade, when she transferred to Moorestown Friends. A member of the Class of 1988, she’s been on the board of trustees since 2016. She’s also a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Virginia’s law school. In a recent interview, she talked about some of the work she’s proudest of, the privilege of being a “first,” and the utter futility of herding Taylor Swift’s cats.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What does the executive producer of “20/20″ do?
You’re in charge of the overall well-being of the show. You’re kind of the bottom line for what is broadcast. And that includes the story selection, production, and the care and welfare of the people who create that product. I kind of see that as my role: to steward the show and to also care for the people putting the show on.
You were already a lawyer when you joined ABC News?
I went to law school with the intention of either working on the Hill or working in television. It was sort of my hope that that education would be some kind of a foundation for those two universes. In law school, the law firms come courting. And I thought, well, here I am saying I don’t want to do this. And I don’t even really know exactly what happens at a law firm. Maybe I’ll try it.
I had a good experience with a firm in New York, and was with them for three years, during which I spent a year doing pro bono work in Brooklyn, in housing court. But pretty much by the first year, I realized, no, I still want to try television. And so I spent a good year networking, trying to meet people, going to journalists’ conventions. I took a couple of night classes at NYU just to meet people in TV so I could brainstorm with them, and eventually found my way to ABC.
I still keep my [law] license to this day, because, as my parents would say, you never know. And even though they’re not with me anymore, I still will.
We would have trips into Philadelphia and go and see Lisa Thomas-Laury do the noon news. It was exciting, and that was the energy I wanted to be around.
What first drew you to TV news?
Knowing that TV was of interest to me started with visits to WPVI [Channel 6]. One of my classmates in Haddonfield [Friends], her father was one of the executives at ’PVI. We would have trips into Philadelphia and go and see Lisa Thomas-Laury do the noon news. It was exciting, and that was the energy I wanted to be around.
January was a pretty good month for Alpha Kappa Alpha — you and another member of that sorority, Vice President Kamala Harris, both achieved significant firsts. Does that feel like a big deal to you — to be the first woman and first Black executive producer in the long history of 20/20 — and do you think representation matters as much behind the scenes as it does on camera?
Absolutely. I’m not going to equate myself to the vice president at all [laughs]. But I hear a lot of themes in what she says that resonate with me. I’m still of the generation where I’m going to be first of something. And that is often first woman, not just singled to race. I feel like that’s a privileged position still, because the people before us didn’t get to be the first. And it’s good to celebrate first, and keep moving. Because there’s so much to do!
Representation 100% matters. I heard a lot of that [after her promotion was announced], from colleagues, or people that I have mentored or didn’t realize I had mentored, in the sense that people are always looking to others, and sometimes you don’t even realize it. You don’t have to identify with someone on an outward defining aspect to feel that they represent you. They can represent you with how they do their job, how they walk through the world, and how they treat other people.
Along with most of the other news magazines, “20/20″ has changed a lot over the years and now seems to feature a lot of true crime, though you’ve produced a huge variety of news programs in your career. Is there something “20/20″ looks for in choosing a story?
What we’re always looking for are good stories and good characters, because to understand any story, any conglomeration of events, you have to see it through the lens of one person, and it helps to identify characters that will be good storytellers.
I think that one of the reasons that I was chosen for this role was that I’ve [covered] a lot of entertainment, special events, crime, social action, the pandemic, Juneteenth — I’ve done a lot of different things. So while our show does lean into true crime, it’s not all that we do.
What are some of the stories you’ve been proudest to have worked on?
I am proud of our relationship with the women in Cleveland, the three women that were held captive by Ariel Castro for 10 years. That’s one I’ve worked on with [Good Morning America coanchor] Robin Roberts, who will sometimes do 20/20 with us. I feel really protective over that story. And I was glad that we were able to flesh it out and have the time in our last airing, which was two hours, to really give their story more time.
Most recently, the Vanessa Guillen story [Guillen was the Fort Hood, Texas, soldier murdered last April] was a two-hour story we did in September.
I’m also really proud of my continued relationship with the country music industry. I know that sounds crazy, because we’re talking about 20/20. But one of the branches that falls under our umbrella is an annual country music special in the fall and I’ve been doing that since 2009. That just creatively has been really fun. And it’s nice, editorially and personally, to balance joy and sorrow in storytelling.
You’ve overseen production all over the world, and your work’s brought you inside both the White House and Taylor Swift’s house. Which was more complicated? Or just cooler?
[Laughs]. You know the answer to that, right? One was complicated, one was cool.
In the White House, I’ve been privileged to go there under different administrations. And even though the administrations are different, the rules of entry are the same. There’s a uniformity there.
Taylor’s house, that was just cool. I was there [in Nashville] doing the country music special. I was so impressed by how well she runs her business and her brand.
Working on the story, you’ve got your questions, and you’re managing your crew and your anchor. But there was also the added challenge that it was her home and her cats were walking around, as cats will do, and sitting in the middle of the kitchen, as cats will do. And so as you’re producing, in the back of your head, you’re trying to make sure that nobody steps on the cat, nobody hits the cat. And everyone who knows a cat knows you can’t tell a cat to leave the room.