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The anchors on the premiere telecast of 20/20 were renowned Esquire magazine editor Harold Hayes, who also served as the program's senior producer, and famed Time art critic Robert Hughes.

The show's debut received largely harsh reviews; The New York Times described it as "dizzyingly absurd" and The Washington Post denounced it as "the trashiest stab at candycane journalism yet." In his autobiography Roone: A Memoir, Roone Arledge recalled that probably the most embarrassing part of that initial program was the Claymation segments featuring caricatures representing then-President Jimmy Carter (singing "Georgia on My Mind") and Walter Cronkite (closing the show intoning, "That's the way it was").

Eastern; while in that timeslot, it ranked at 21st place in the annual Nielsen ratings by the 1991–92 season.

It aired in that same Friday time slot until the fall of 2001, when ABC briefly replaced the program with the scripted family drama series Once and Again, only for 20/20 to return to the lineup again four months later; it has basically retained the timeslot ever since. timeslot on October 12, 2007, it reverted to its usual time two weeks later.

In 1997, a second weekly edition of 20/20 made its debut on Thursday evenings.

In September 2009, before the start of its 31st season, John Stossel announced he would leave the program after 28 years to pursue a new weekly show on the Fox Business Network.

By early 2002, 20/20 once again was airing only in its original Friday timeslot.

On March 3, 1999, Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who was infamously revealed to have been involved in an affair with then-President Bill Clinton a few years earlier, was interviewed by Barbara Walters on the program; that particular edition of 20/20 was watched by an estimated 70 million viewers, which ABC stated was a record audience for a news program.

As a result of the scathing reviews, serious and drastic changes were immediately made: Hayes and Hughes were fired (as was original executive producer Bob Shanks), and a then semi-retired Hugh Downs was recruited to take on the role of sole host on the following week's program.

Also featured in the premiere telecast of 20/20, the opening sequence consisted of a pair of eyeglasses, whose lenses showed colored bars, which are often seen in the SMPTE test pattern (used when television stations were off the air between sign-off and sign-on).

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