By Tom Shales
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
In network television, Sunday mornings are not for sleeping in, going to church or Belgian waffles. They're for the Sunday morning talk shows, serious political palaver platforms that sometimes make news and consistently attract a demographically attractive audience.
If it sounds as though the programs dwell in a sleepy nook offering refuge from TV's feverish competition, that's not the case. The competition is heated if not feverish, dominated by the struggle of ABC's "This Week" to catch up with, and then overtake, NBC's longtime ratings champ "Meet the Press."
Now that contest has reached a new stage: ABC News bosses are talking to "This Week" moderator George Stephanopoulos, 48, about moving up to an anchor chair on the daily "Good Morning, America" show -- where Stephanopoulos would have to deal with baby-buggy recalls, interview movie stars, and pose for a never-ending series of publicity shots, perhaps including one of him dancing the Paso Doble.
Every week, publicists at ABC News crow about chunks chipped away from the NBC lead on Sunday mornings. On Nov. 1, ABC continued to shrivel the gap: Nielsen figures show 3,140,000 viewers sticking with "Meet the Press" and 2,750,000 watching "This Week" (the shows do not air directly opposite each other in every market).
A year ago, the gap between NBC's haughty front-runner and ABC's scrappy contender was 1,090,000; now it's down to 390,000 viewers, a clear and dramatic change. Improvement on this scale suggests it's a mere matter of time before "This Week" regains the top spot it had when David Brinkley, the legendary newsman for whom the show was created (by Roone Arledge, longtime ABC News and Sports president), was its polite, proper and popular star.
Stephanopoulos, formerly of the Bill Clinton brain trust, is also polite, but he's a determined competitor, too. You can bet he looks at the ratings the minute they come into the office.
One might assume he'd want to stay with "This Week" as it wends its way to the top (though "wending" may be too mild a verb), then preside triumphantly over the victory. And yet industry sources say he is giving serious consideration to "GMA," where he'd replace the ever-incandescent Diane Sawyer. Sawyer is fleeing the early hours to take over ABC's evening "World News" show when Charlie Gibson steps down in January.
Sawyer seems perfect for the job she is getting; indeed, it's the kind of thing that should probably have happened years ago but didn't. In recent years, the history of "World News" has been marked by trauma -- first, the death of anchor Peter Jennings, then the hospitalization and lengthy recovery of reporter Bob Woodruff, seriously wounded while serving as an ABC war correspondent in Iraq.
The arrival of Sawyer should bring stability as well as dazzling class to the broadcast.
Meanwhile in the fragile early-morning hours, the prospect of Stephanopoulos co-hosting the funsy, often frivolous "Good Morning, America" is not quite so cheering. In fact, it's unpleasant, a potential squandering of talents which are ideally suited to "This Week" and have served it well. Stephanopoulos would be walking into less than peaceful territory; "GMA" is a troubled mess, having settled into murky ratings doldrums lately after a few years of edging closer to, but never quite catching, NBC's "Today," the Moby Dick of morning shows.
Now "Today" appears to have pulled away again, and "GMA" is no longer hot on its heels.
The Sunday-morning political talkees are high-toned productions as network news shows go -- and certainly serious when compared with the fun-and-games on weekday mornings; there's almost no fluff or fooling around. "This Week," "Meet" and the venerable CBS show "Face the Nation" all stick mainly to a press-conference format much as "Meet the Press" introduced it in 1947; the show is as old as network television itself.
Because the Sunday shows are short on gimmicky gewgaws, some might be inclined to call them musty, but that's the proverbial bum rap. "This Week" has refined and expanded the format, having long since added "In Memoriam," a segment noting newsworthy people who died in the previous seven days; and "Sunday Funnies," a selection of clips culled from topical humor on late-night talk shows.
Over on CBS, veteran correspondent Bob Schieffer, virtually beloved among the Washington press corps, continues his stint as moderator of "Face the Nation," which premiered on Nov. 7, 1954. CBS publicity keeps track of "Nation's" ratings, too, and they aren't awful, even though the program is limited to a half hour (the others have long been hourly). Schieffer may seem very country-gentlemanly on the air, but he's quite capable of boring in on an elusive newsmaker and getting a headline-worthy comment.
Any discussion of "Meet the Press" as a competitor must include one pivotal acknowledgment -- the sudden death in 2008 of the program's moderator and guiding light, Tim Russert. "Meet the Press" showed new vitality under his rule and renewed popularity as Russert blew away accumulated dust. David Gregory, promoted to the show's top spot, does not look happy in the assignment; if anything, he gives the appearance of being annoyed by constraints, longing to be out in the world chasing stories. The kindest things to say about Gregory are that he comes across as over-qualified and yet underachieving.
Stephanopoulos did not have it easy when it came to establishing himself in the news world. His boyish looks, no doubt an asset in some situations, can make him come across as inexperienced on the air and work against his being taken seriously. If Stephanopoulos wore bow ties on the show, he would look 7 years old.
But superficialities and cosmetic issues aside, Stephanopoulos has insinuated himself into the program and made it his, and so it seems all the odder that he would be thinking of swimming upstream to "GMA." It's not upstream in terms of prestige, of course, but it certainly would mean a hefty increase in pay and visibility for Stephanopoulos.
It would also play havoc with the notion that he is a devout journalist who manages to stay above the ratings-fueled fray of TV competition and keeps his dignity intact. He at least gives that impression now, a welcome one in days when TV news slides further and further into a tabloid trough. There's never a shortage of slippery slopes -- to use a favorite Sunday-morning cliche -- and never a surplus of agile navigators, either.