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TV networks get political workout with Sunday morning shows

By Jack Curry,

Fewer than 100,000 of us here in Washington watch “Meet the Press,” the runaway No. 1 political affairs show on Sunday morning. “Fox News Sunday” draws even fewer viewers in the capital area. And the CBS and ABC programs even less. Combined viewership, at best: 200,000.

But you know who you are, and so do the networks. The influencers, the decision-makers, the elected and those who want to be. And, yes, the flunkies and hangers-on. You are “THE 200,000” — the Beltway elite whom these shows, Sunday morning traditions for decades, prize and fight desperately to attract.

Their relevance perhaps redefined by the partisan chat that fills 24/7 cable outlets, the Sunday shows still provide a study in network news competition at the highest national level. New hosts, new sets, new producers, new segments, old segments returning. As the election cycle begins to heat up the battle among these shows, observing the adaptations among the rarefied pool of TV players can make for intriguing Sunday morning quarterbacking.

Other homegrown series ply the same goods. “Inside Washington” and “Washington Week” generate some Friday night light on their roundtables. But nowhere on TV do the networks flex their political muscle, one against the other, as on Sunday morning.

Commitment to a format that loyal viewers expect vies with the interests of new talent and the allure of new technology. With the ratings and rankings of the shows perhaps more fluid than in any recent election cycle, here’s a survey of the four network political shows.

No. 3: “THIS WEEK WITH CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR,” ABC

AVERAGE VIEWERSHIP: 2.1 MILLION

“My goal is that Christiane’s program will be the most-watched program on Sunday.”

No faulting just-hired Rick Kaplan for lack of ambition. Placed in the executive producer seat at ABC’s third-ranked “This Week With Christiane Amanpour” on May 12, the day after he resigned as executive producer of “CBS Evening News” with Katie Couric, the TV veteran knows what he is getting into.

As in his last job, he is tasked with elevating an also-ran newscast hosted by a woman in a male-dominated arena, whose journalism bona fides were earned in a venue far different from the one where she now finds herself. Kaplan never managed to craft a half-hour around Couric that captured the personality of her “Today Show” rise to fame. Or one that moved above third place.

In the first month, Kaplan’s determination to better serve Amanpour — best known as a foreign correspondent — was evident. First, he returned two “This Week” staples that had been scuttled with her arrival: “Sunday Funnies” (clips of political humor from late-night shows) and “In Memoriam” (mini-obits of noteworthy people and a listing of the war dead).

“You know, I don’t why they disappeared,” says Kaplan, reluctant to criticize the choices of the five — yes, five — producers who preceded him in the past year. “Let’s just say: Those segments disappeared, and when I came here I put them back.” And with some oddly personal editorial decisions: In one “In Memoriam,” of the two deaths featured, Katie Couric’s father was selected. (The other: North Carolina State University basketball star Lorenzo Charles.)

More telling has been the distinctly global feel of the show. “We are altering the program,” Kaplan says. “We want to offer viewers something the other programs don’t. . . . Christiane is very much connected to the world. We think we should reach out to international stories.”

That means that on a recent Sunday morning, Charles Osgood again triumphed on CBS with an entire 90 minutes devoted to “Animal Magnetism” (about as international as it got was a report on koala bears). Kaplan proudly points out that “This Week” ran a gut-wrenching segment on the drought in Africa and the children it is killing.

When the News Emmy nominations were announced July 18, “This Week” received a nod for an Amanpour report on Islam, so Kaplan may be on to something — in one way, at least. The only other nomination any Sunday political show received was for set design for “Meet the Press.”

Promoting the upcoming broadcast of the day on “GMA Sunday” recently, Amanpour teased viewers that the show “was just packed.” Indeed, Kaplan intends to use the hour to deliver many more stories than he thinks the other shows do. “I think the audience is ready for more than just one subject.”

And with the increase in viewership and attention that presidential election cycles bring, Kaplan may be right when he says: “I think that the audience is up for grabs.” And grab he will.

No. 1: “MEET THE PRESS,” NBC

AVERAGE VIEWERSHIP: 3 MILLION

“We are not doing things to improve our ratings,” says longtime “Meet the Press” executive Betsy Fischer.

Really, she doesn’t have to. Even rival producer Kaplan acknowledges that “Tim Russert created an amazing machine.” It is one that, three years after the much-respected moderator’s death, continues to generate viewership comfortably higher than that of any of its closest competitors.

The show’s superior performance mirrors NBC’s dominance in its nightly news broadcast with Brian Williams and the four-hour daily marathon that is the “Today” show. The regular appearance of “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory on those venues, as well as on MSNBC, makes him a far more familiar presence than any of his competitors, who are largely sequestered in their Sunday pulpits.

Still, with Gregory (at 40, the youngest of all Sunday moderators) at the helm, NBC proudly looks at its past while aggressively embracing novelty.

On the same page at the “Meet the Press” Web site where viewer e-mails are collected (several are read on the air most weeks), there is a photo of a 1947 broadcast with a caption saying that “Meet the Press” is the “longest running television program in history.”

Fischer says that legacy represents a key connection with viewers, but also that “we’ve integrated new segments as we see fit, including more outreach through social media.”

It could be argued that “Meet the Press” has done more recently to exploit digital communication with its followers than any of the other series. In July, Gregory announced on Facebook that the show had partnered with the social media colossus for an online debate 2 days ahead of the New Hampshire primary. No mention of which GOP candidates might actually participate. The host also in April began taping a midweek interview for exclusive distribution via the Web site.

But as with so many other conventional media outlets, “Meet the Press” has yet to score big with its digital iterations. Response levels on the “Meet the Press” site and at Facebook hover near 45 posts, many from the same two or three guys talking to each other.

And upkeep on the site often proves too demanding for the resources that a broadcast entity can devote to digital. A home page section titled “Recent Notable Interviews” dates the most recent from nearly a year ago (Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Robert Bobb, Randi Weingarten on Sept. 26, 2010!). Either it’s been a slow year, or, more likely, someone on the online desk is swamped.

Fischer, who has been with NBC for 20 years, says the steady viewership of the core product speaks for itself. And, asked whether she has any advice for those playing catchup, says: “I am not giving away any free advice.”

No. 2: “FACE THE NATION,” CBS

AVERAGE VIEWERSHIP: 2.6 MILLION

If change is good, “Face the Nation” is in a good place. Within the past several months, the CBS Sunday morning stalwart installed a new executive producer, benefited from a star hire at the network, and saw its lead-in consolidate an ever-growing dominance.

Just-appointed executive producer Mary Hager says viewers can also expect to see the show get out of the studio more often and for its veteran host, Bob Schieffer, to start tweeting. Even being the only network political affairs show with the limit of half-hour format isn’t a problem. “I think we are extremely competitive with the half-hour,” Hager says. “Sometimes we have to wedge a lot in there, sometimes we have a little more room to breathe, but I think we are extremely competitive.”

Problem is, they probably should be more so. Though the series “gets bounced around a little,” as Hager puts it, because of sports programming, most weeks it sits in the sweetest spot on the schedule: right after the most dominant show of the morning, bar none, “CBS Sunday Morning.” With 4 million viewers, and by some network number-crunching even more, the feel-good Charles Osgood magazine is a form of religion to devoted fans.

Still, that so many (roughly a quarter) of the faithful depart the CBS sanctuary at 10:31 is a giant Achilles’ heel, and with “This Week” nipping at that heel for the No. 2 slot, it could be troublesome to the suits.

Hager will hear none of it, noting that CBS, technically the No. 1-rated network in overall viewership, is the only network with a “Super Sunday line-up,” borrowing some luster from “60 Minutes.” Correctly, she endorses Schieffer’s respected status among all hosts. She also says she looks forward to adding the newly hired Nora O’Donnell to the mix.

In a move that Politico in May called “stunning,” CBS announced O’Donnell’s hire away from NBC and appointed her both White House correspondent and, with equal excitement, principal substitute anchor for Schieffer on “Face the Nation.” This is not ageism, just math: O’Donnell is 37; Schieffer, 74.

“Bob is more excited, more invigorated and thrilled than ever before. He is the gold standard of Sunday,” Hager says.

No. 4: “FOX NEWS SUNDAY WITH CHRIS WALLACE”

AVERAGE VIEWERSHIP: 1.2 MILLION

“Brit loves Juan, and Juan loves Brit. They are good buddies.”

“Fox News Sunday” executive producer Marty Ryan says he has sent that e-mail testimonial to more than one viewer who contacted him about the sparring between regular panelists Brit Hume and Juan Williams. “They are just passionate about issues and engage,” he says.

As with all four of the network Sunday political shows, the roundtable is a key element. Not counting the syndicated shout show “The McLaughlin Group,” “Fox News Sunday” moderator Chris Wallace seems to have the most to, well, moderate with his regulars. He is, Ryan insists, the best at that part of the job and also the other key skill — interviewing administration and congressional reps and other guests.

“The intensity of what we do on Sunday morning is much, much different than anyplace else. I think people tune in to see that. It’s different from seeing a congressional leader being interviewed on ‘Fox Sunday’ than it is seeing him doing a walking interview on Capitol Hill on cable.”

Going into this election cycle, the fact that the news will be GOP-slanted should benefit “Fox Sunday,” currently in last place in ratings nationally. “It doesn’t hurt us that it is a Republican race. This is a good thing for us,” Ryan says.

Also good for him in the Washington market — where all four shows originate — is the fact that his is the only one benefiting from a local lead-in, a live newscast from WTTG (Channel 5).

“WTTG is great — they heavily promote the show,” Ryan says. “Chris is on there Sunday morning before the show. I would love to have that in 150 stations!” Instead, even in the New York market, the politics hour is often preceded by religious programming. “I can’t control the lead-in,” Ryan says.

Regular viewers can look for a fall return of the Power Player segment, a weekly mini-profile of a shaker and maker. Also, as with the other series, social media outreach will increase, though, as with the other sites, signs of real connectivity aren’t immediate. A weekly polling feature gets, like, 700-plus votes — but from 79 people. Passionate and engaged like that panel, but not a large head count.

Curry is a freelance writer.

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