Tom Shales reviews Christiane Amanpour's lackluster debut on ABC's 'This Week'

ABC News' 'This Week' host talks about her Sunday debut.
By Tom Shales
Monday, August 2, 2010

With pomp and panoply befitting a visit from a foreign dignitary, ABC raised the curtain on its newly revamped "This Week" program and introduced in a big way the superstar who's taken it over in a big, big way: Christiane Amanpour, veteran CNN foreign correspondent now uneasily relocated to a desk job.

It's not that Amanpour seemed personally uncomfortable or constrained in her weekend debut -- opening night was Sunday morning -- but rather that she proved that she's miscast for the role, her highly touted global orientation coming across as inappropriate and contrived on a broadcast that for three decades has dealt primarily with domestic politics, policies and culture.

In promotional appearances earlier in the week on ABC's "Good Morning, America," inevitably enough, and at the start of the new show, Amanpour announced her intention to "open a window on the world" now that she runs "This Week," but the show was hardly a haven for isolationists, and refashioning it to take advantage of Amanpour's specialty could, in a word, ruin it.

Exhibit A: During the roundtable portion of the show -- from the beginning, "This Week's" centerpiece and best feature -- Amanpour didn't stick to discussing news of the week with the show's estimable, exceptional panelists -- among them George F. Will and Donna Brazile -- but instead brought in a foreign journalist seen earlier in the program, Ahmed Rashid (momentarily stationed in Madrid), for his views via satellite. It was awkward in form and proved negligible in content.

In fact, it became ludicrous when, near the end of the segment, the U.S. economy was discussed and Amanpour called upon Rashid, the Taliban expert, again even though he seemed of dubious relevance and authority to the topic at hand. Amanpour's implied rationale for summoning Rashid once more was that the American economy affects American foreign policy. But what if it does? It's hardly being provincial to say the economy's impact on struggling Americans is immeasurably more important. And it's not being picky to point out that the name of the show is not "This Week in American Foreign Policy."

Prior to the segment that Amanpour kept calling "our powerhouse roundtable," the star was showcased with two "exclusive" newsmaker interviews -- both taped and edited earlier in the week and thus neither of them live, as would be more compatible with the sensibilities of the show's heyday and, of course, a chief asset and advantage of TV news. Amanpour talked first withHouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The interviews were ballyhooed mere minutes after they aired, with Amanpour and others recalling excerpts from the Pelosi chat during the roundtable -- which, oddly enough, is no longer round, having been scrapped for one shaped like a lumpy old lima bean. Nearly everything about the hour that was retooled for Amanpour -- even the gaudier, glossier graphics and the more bombastic theme music -- was edgily and notably New & Improved, and given the hotly competitive nature of the time period, that's really neither surprising nor in itself particularly deplorable.

But when combined with all the hard-core hoopla about Amanpour, and the fact that (at least on the premiere) she maintained a higher profile in the hour than series founder David Brinkley, or longtime host George Stephanopoulos -- or interim host Jake Tapper, for that matter -- the whole production came through as needlessly shrill and showy.

Tapper, in fact, grew quickly and comfortably into the role of "This Week" host and became a kind of "favorite son" in campaigns by fans on Facebook and the Internet generally -- even as the clock ticked his interim tenure away and the Grand Duchess Amanpour approached on her royal barge from overseas. Is this a classic case of fixing that which wasn't broken? The question is especially apt considering Amanpour's $2 million annual salary, a glaring extravagance at a news division suffering mightily under the cruelty of cutbacks and personnel pruning.

During Tapper's tenure, in fact, "This Week" accomplished its longtime goal of out-rating, on at least one Sunday, the oldest established permanent floating chat game in D.C., NBC's "Meet the Press." Of course there has to be an asterisk in the record book because "Press" is still feeling the loss of Washington fixture Tim Russert, who set a record by helming that show for 16 top-rated years until his death in 2008.

Even so, the adept and likable Tapper stood a good chance of steering "This Week" into the kind of dominance that "Meet the Press" has so long enjoyed. And it didn't require any globe-trotting Fancy-Pants to do it.

Perhaps in keeping with the newly globalized program, the commendable "In Memoriam" segment ended with a tribute not to American men and women who died in combat during the preceding week but rather, said Amanpour in her narration, in remembrance of "all of those who died in war" in that period. Did she mean to suggest that our mourning extend to members of the Taliban?

A tiny final feature, introduced by Amanpour as "our picture of the week," sounded like it would consist of a single, vital resonant image that might visually summarize the state of the nation or the world at the moment, but it turned out to be a group of pictures that dissolved one into the other, agreeably "nice" but lacking in punch.

"Follow me on Facebook and Twitter," Amanpour instructed viewers as a parting comment, though it would seem most of those who'd just followed her through "This Week" would have had plenty of Amanpour by that time.

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