By George, she's good

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The last time I tossed off programming advice for network executives was to suggest that NBC put Jay Leno on every night at 10 o'clock. Gosh, what a swell idea.

I'm still waiting for the thank-you notes. Hello?

Regardless and undaunted, I have more suggestions, these much sounder. First, a rousing cheer for the (new) status quo: Diane Sawyer has truly taken charge of ABC's evening "World News" and made it her own.

Second, Barbara Walters -- so long considered Sawyer's nemesis and vice versa -- had such a good time Sunday morning as host of "This Week" that the gig should be hers for keeps, if she wants it, which she probably doesn't.

As its loyal viewers know, ABC has been conducting virtual if not actual on-air auditions to find a replacement for George Stephanopoulos on the Sunday morning news show. However unlikely a choice she may be for the job, Walters hosted an hour that was lively and compelling.

It should be noted right off that it's shamefully easy to make a TV program "lively" and that doing so can be a simple, crass tactic for spiking the ratings. Fireworks are cheap to set off; experienced TV talkers know how to pick fights and how to bicker entertainingly.

Such may have seemed the case when natural enemies Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox, and Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the roguish Huffington Post Web newspaper, met across the "This Week" table, or rather a new, modern version of it. Although both Ailes and Huffington were billed as members of the panel, there to comment on the issues of the day, Huffington treated Ailes himself as an issue and lit into him once the gates were open, attacking Ailes and Fox for, among other things, espousing a "paranoid" politics of fear and for allegedly using inflammatory language on the air.

Walters showed the two of them just enough leeway, not letting the argument degenerate into a shouting match -- she knows television is full of those, and they're a bad influence -- but not being overly cautious in putting the brakes on, either. Whatever else she is, she is no party pooper.

Ailes defended himself and Fox News by saying, "I'm not in politics, I'm in ratings. We're winning." It may have been disingenuous, but he did it well -- one arena in which Fox isn't "winning," as it happens, is the Sunday morning talk zone. "Fox News Sunday" trails the other big-four networks' offerings in total viewers and in the targeted 25-54 demographic.

Regular "This Week" panelist George F. Will was his usual impeccable self -- although Walters and her brand of pizazz seemed to make him a trifle uneasy -- and was joined by Paul Krugman (gratuitously announcing that news consumers could learn all they need to know from his paper, the New York Times), along with Ailes and Huffington. Unfortunately absent was Donna Brazile, who elevates the panel whenever she's a member.

Sunday's was, nevertheless, a brisk and electrical hour, the first 20 minutes or so given over to Walters's interview with Scott Brown (R-Mass), just elected to Teddy Kennedy's seat in Congress. A Walters interview is a Walters interview; she has her unmistakable personal style and didn't try to change it. Would previous host Stephanopoulos have brought up, and held up, Brown's much-publicized near-nude spread from Cosmopolitan magazine, as Walters did? He probably would have had to -- but relished it less.

It was brassy of Babsy to hold the centerfold up so Brown had to face it, but he smoothly finessed the matter, using his stock lines: "I was 22 years old" and "I wish I still looked like that."

What Walters needn't have done was point out that the issue of Cosmo with Brown's picture also had an article about her. There was a full-page photograph, too, which Walters held up to the camera, but certainly nothing scandalous. On Monday's edition of "The View," Walters's huge daytime hit, she said she learned about the article from the "This Week" crew, but she didn't really justify bringing it up. She called it "full disclosure," but it might only have been that if she'd been near-nude, too.

The idea of making Walters host of "This Week" is probably impractical -- she'd have to give up "The View," for one thing -- and the odds-on favorite for the job remains Jake Tapper, the network's White House correspondent. He'll host the next edition, his second turn. Maybe the Walters appearance was just a lark for her, but anyone could see she worked hard at it and brought the full measure of her experience and expertise to the job. What a Pro.

Meanwhile, on ABC's revamped "World News," the ever-classy Diane Sawyer has set new standards for peripatetic anchors everywhere. Sawyer herself refers to her first month in the anchor chair as "The Decathlon," because she saw very little of the chair. She dashed all over the globe in dazzling demonstration of her reportorial prowess. Her pieces from Haiti -- obviously not a scheduled trip -- were outstanding, not weepy but still movingly humane.

During a brief chat Monday, Sawyer said she was enjoying "the whole seriousness of purpose" she senses among ABC News personnel, something she barely had a second to sample when being rushed in at 4 a.m. to do "Good Morning America." Reminded that she was still occupying the show's old set, Sawyer said changing it was not a big priority. "I like small and simple, anyway," she said. "My tendency would be to take things away rather than bring new things in."

The play's the thing, of course, or as in this case, the news. Sawyer has notched up the competitive temperature of the three-network evening-news race to white-hot, and she clearly has the admirable smarts, and the tough hide, to win it.

ABC News is sitting, uhhh, handsome.

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