Shales on TV live: Diane Sawyer to World News; Stephanopoulos to GMA?

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV columnist
Tuesday, November 10, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Nov. 10, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

Today: Just as "This Week" poses its most serious threat yet to catch up with the top-rated "Meet the Press" on NBC and perhaps snatch the top spot for itself, moderator George Stephanopoulos is thinking about jumping ship to take Diane Sawyer's job on "Good Morning, America." Dee-Dee, as we close friends call her, is taking over "World News" when Charlie Gibson leaves in January ... "

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.


Tom Shales: And here we are again, our own version of "Survivor." A few questions about the subject of my column, George Steph (for short) possibly taking Diane Sawyer's job on GMA in January when she moves to World News. Onward......


Denver, Colo.: I would like to know who you think would be better suited for the anchor job...George Stephanopoulos or Chris Cuomo?

Tom Shales: The anchor job on -- World News in the evening? No question but that would be George Steph (I just don't think I can keep typing "Stephanopoulos" without getting it wrong 50 per cent of the time. Maybe 70 %)... But if you mean anchoring GMA, might as well give it to Cuomo who though obnoxious is more suited to fluff and froth


New York City: Tom -- What are your thoughts on Chris Cuomo as replacement for Diane Sawyer?

Tom Shales: No no never -- I hope. But like I just said, he does seem to have the proper chops for a show such as thing -- which has a modicum of news and then rushes into cooking tips, fashion tips, tip tips, tipping point tips, whatever -- 80 percent frivolousness except on days of a big breaking news story, especially a mass murder or a hurricane. Cuomo is SUCH a ham. A camera hog. When 3 or 4 of them are together on a sofa, he will position himself on the very very edge so as to be closer to his dear friend The Camera.


San Diego, Calif.: Do you believe George S. is too stiff for second hour of GMA?

Tom Shales: I wouldn't say "too stiff" because I would think "more power to him" if he can't change his nature and turn into a bubbly sort of goof -- and he would have to opine on foolish things and interview movie and TV stars (especially ABC stars of course - he'd have to become something of a prostitute too -- Walter Winchell used to call them "prostitootsies" by the way; he thought that would catch on. It didn't !!!) Sorry - a bit off topic......


Arlington, Va.: In the past, it has seemed to be a logical progression from being the host on one of the morning shows to eventually becoming the main news anchor. Brokaw, Couric, and Gibson have done it and Sawyer will follow the trend. George, if he takes Good Morning America, would be setting himself up as the heir apparent to an anchor who is currently in her mid-60's.

Tom Shales: I suppose that would be part of his rationale for swallowing pride and hunkering down among the GMA "TV personalities" -- that he'd be in line for Diane's job when she got tired of it. I wonder if a woman will be "allowed" to age in the spotlight as, say, Walter Cronkite was. I would hope so -- but let's not be too optimistic. Maybe she will have to have lots of "work done," but for all we know, maybe Uncle Walter had work done. After all, Charles Kuralt had a mistress!!! Anyway I hope there won't be any fuss about Diane being the first woman AFTER KATIE to hold this kind of position. Oh and please -- no "hair pull" or "cat fight" cracks about Katie and Diane (a futile hope on my part).......


Hartford, Conn.: Hello. Would NBC really cancel Jay Leno at this point? After all the scheduling changes they have made, what would NBC do? Do you think the folks at NBC had an alternative plan if Jay Leno at 10:00 did not work out? If their best ratings would come during rerun season, why didn't they wait to start his show later in the television season? Thanks.

Tom Shales: You're certainly making sense if you think NBC has painted itself into a corner with Leno. Also, Jeff Zucker even more than most vain network executives HATES admitting a mistake. They would have to find some fancy-pants reason for getting Leno out of there. Maybe they could talk him into coming up with a cover story -- like he's resigning to spend more time with his Bugatti's and Model T's. I don't suppose - as you suggest - that NBC has a stockpile of scripted 10 o'clock shows ready to air -- they had that one, of course, and they let it get away (sorry, title gone from memory bank - Summerland? Summerville? Slumber Party? BUT what NBC could easily do is first crank Jay back to say Mon-Weds-Fri schedule or just Mon & Fri, then winnow it down until he was -- gone! Like Houdini.


Silver Spring, Md.: Tom -- bunch of speculation out there about the Jay Leno you think the suits at NBC would really pull it off the schedule at this point? What would they back fill it with?

Tom Shales: Hello Silver Spring. Doesn't it bug you when people say "Silver Springs"? Anyway this question sort of already came up. I would think that even in their arrogance, NBC executives would have a "failure option" -- a fallback position in the event Jay bombed. He hasn't exactly bombed but they sure could be doing better in those 10 o'clock slots with a Law & Order spinoff - or Law & Order itself. Heck maybe they could do better with a revival of "Ding Dong School"


Salinas, Calif.: Tom, if Stephanopoulos does jump to GMA, might ABC give Sunday's This Week to Jake Tapper? He has subbed ably for George in the past.

Tom Shales: I suppose Tapper is in line. I find him too "stuffy" even for a slightly stuffy show! I think we need a non-pejorative here -- like the ever-popular "gravitas." Trick is to have gravitas (and of course "grace") without being mistaken for a stone statue. Stephanopoulos can get awfully micro about political stuff but he seems an ideal guy for "This Week" -- NOT so ideal for GMA. It's easy to say what he should do because nobody is offering you or me 12 million bucks. Those big teledollars can't be dismissed. They HAVE TO enter into a person's thinking even when offered a job for which he or she is not suited - and which will mean a tremendous compromise of dignity.


Anonymous: After Diane leaves GMA...what do you think will happen to GMA? Will they stay at #2 or quickly move to #3?

Tom Shales: I don't see them moving to No.3. For one thing, CBS has a lock on it! ha ha. But actually, I don't think CBS has the "clearances" for the Harry Smith show, meaning that too small a percentage of the CBS affiliates carry the program at its scheduled time, or at all. Then again if the show suddenly starts looking "hot," then the affiliates who have sold the local time to evangelists will think again and maybe decide to carry it. What a complicated mess.


Silver Spring, Md.: It does indeed bother me when folks say "Silver Springs." It happens quite often on television. That NBC series that got away was Southland.

Tom Shales: "Southland" Thank you. I think if I'd had 20 minutes I would have thought of it -- though the "chat" might have gotten a bit static. Someone has to be here to push the buttons.


Alexandria, Va.: Tom,

Thanks for these chats -- I've admired your writing for many years. It is one thing to be an astute critic -- entirely another to be laugh-out-loud funny (even when I occasionally disagree!) Last week someone wrote in re: political shows and you mentioned something about Chris Matthews being "unpredictable" -- I seem to remember you describing him (quite aptly) as "the rudest person on television" some years ago. I wonder if you have changed your mind? I find him to be rude, arrogant and sexist. Why is he still on? From what I gather his ratings are miserable. Unfortunately he is not alone -- these cable shows are all so awful on both sides. Olbermann/Hannity/O'Reilly et al. No illumination of issues -- just self righteous hosts pontificating and obscuring very important matters. Are there ANY political shows worth watching these days?

Tom Shales: Some day I fear I will learn that the letters i pass along with very kind compliments in them were really written by angry Tom-bashers who just want to see me make a fool of myself when I blush from the flattery! Oh what a diabolical scheme THAT would be! Perchance I am too paranoid (or "mayhaps" as the great late John Carmody used to say). Where was I -- Chris Matthews rude? Well yeah but certainly full of energy. A live wire to say the least. Personally I don't want or need a big political fix every darn day. But I know we live in the most political metro area in the country so -- which political show would I watch? I feel they all make fools of themselves eventually or frequently. I wish I could watch Ben Affleck doing his satirical impression of Olbermann every night instead of watching the actual Olbermann. Affleck was kind of an uber Ober -- yes it was from Saturday Night Live, but I've noticed it (about a 6-minute sketch) popping up all over the web. Oh and I do like Maddow on MSNBC. But again, an hour a night of political pondering to me is just - you know what's coming -- ponderous. No matter who's doing it.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Why doesn't NBC consider retrofitting Jay Leno's show? For example, they could make it half scripted, as the Larry Sanders Show did, along with actual interviews. That might create a storyline to attract viewers while keeping the monologue and interviews.

Tom Shales: I know what you're saying -- Jay Leno certainly seems absolutely stubbornly relentlessly avers to change, even when change is obviously needed. Isn't he still having some lame 2nd-raters come out in the first "act" of the show with a dreary-dumb taped piece? The very first night of the new show, Leno turned over 8 or 9 minutes of his own program to some unfunny boob who thought it would be a scream to sing grand opera at a car wash -- or something along those lines. Leno is a very stubborn man, but he should see that he's shooting himself in the -- chin. Oh what an easy target.


Arlington, Va.: There was the possibility raised that when Comcast takes over NBC, the local stations would slot their news at 10 p.,m. and follow it up with Leno at 11 which is close to where he belongs. Right now, Leno is your fallback if there is nothing else on the hundreds of channels that you can now access, not mention what is On Demand.

Tom Shales: Good point or points. Although Comcast has not tipped any hands -- except that a top executive did express to me considerable dissatisfaction with Leno - both as a concept and insofar as Leno's performance goes or has gone. It's just a tangle of inadequacies. Ten o'clock news on Channel 5 is certainly popular in the DC area, but we're notoriously early retirers (?) as well as early risers. Not me, mind you, but "we." I like to be up with the sun myself -- the noonday sun.


Georgie: I think George Steph... is well respected in his This Week show, and that he has built this respect over the years. To me going to GMA is a step down. I know it is a daily show but come on, it's GMA. He used to guest-host that show about 8-9 years ago, why is he wanting to take the step back, do does he see it as a step toward the evening new anchor slot eventually?

Tom Shales: Thoroughly agree. But I hope we'll hear from the other side as well. Of course we're not discussing nuclear policy here. I can imagine someone saying "who gives a fig?" but then this chat is for those who do.....


Silver Spring, Md.: West Wing always got it right. Okay, both times they used it, but they got it right.

And writing quality, acting quality, directing quality -- whole bunch of things Sorkin got right.

Tom Shales: I believe you can buy the whole series for a couple hundred bucks if you want. And start over with Episode 1, then run chronologically through all the seasons. One nice thing about those DVD sets -- but I can't imagine, at least so far, anybody keeping a canceled show in production just to produce episodes for DVD consumption. Then again stranger things have happened.


I think you were thinking of : "Southland" the excellent 10 p.m. show that NBC wasted.

Why is ABC limited to those two guys? It should grab Lester Holt, who has shown he can easily segue between hard news and fluff and is good looking to boot!

Tom Shales: Thanks for participating, Lester. Just joshing.


Olney, Md.: Having been born in 1950, I remember "Ding Dong School", with Miss Frances, who I believe had a Ph.D. in education (I didn't know that when I was 3, by the way). It was an NBC morning show and it's the first show I remember watching. It might not be better than Jay Leno's show, but it would be better than most of the drek on before it, like The Biggest Loser. And we'd learn a lot more from it.

Tom Shales: Yes, Olney, you win this week's Nostalgia Prize! What is the prize? Well we have yet to work that out. I think it's me calling you up and singing TV Theme Songs for 90 seconds. Oh no wait, that's the booby prize. Anyway I have been cautioned about spending too much time down memory lane but I too (obviously) remember Miss Frances and Ding Dong School. That show was certainly simplicity itself. I don't think she had any CGI special effects, ha ha. Really though it goes to show how effective minimalist TV can be - just a teacher and a desk and a camera to talk into, basically. She connected with millions of kids at home. Many many many of those early kids shows were terrific, though none more so I think that Kukla Fran and Ollie - but we have discussed that one before, I believe.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Once anchor replacement decision is made, will GMA stay at #2 or decent to #3? How much will Diane's absence impact ratings?

Tom Shales: That's very hard to say, isn't it - for anyone to say? It is hard to know how many ratings points Sawyer is responsible for -- or "worth." I personally think that GMA will be MUCH duller without her and it's dull enough as it is. I don't think it's a happy show. I think the people who work on it hate it. Or hate the experience. I was on the show with my coauthor & friend Jim Miller to plug "Live from NY." There was a different exec producer then but I remember well that grim gloomy atmosphere. So many of the cast and crew seemed truly to hate the producer, who subsequently sauntered off, and hated their jobs. Maybe these are just the inaccurate observations of someone who isn't accustomed to being conscious at 7 a.m.


How about replacing Gregory:: if not with Rachel Maddow, Gwen Ifill from PBS?

Tom Shales: Fine with me. Maddow would not be a popular choice among conservatives because she embodies and represents the liberal view on her show. It would be a bad idea to install as Meet the Press moderator someone with a very strong partisan political profile. Everybody on the opposite side would be screaming bloody murder or at least "prejudicial treatment" etc. I can't believe it's already 12:40. Either time flies when you're having fun -- or I dosed off for 15 minutes. I hope it's the former.....


Northern Virginia: I just read this little announcement on "Larry King will have complete coverage of John Allen Muhammad's execution tonight at 9 ET." (He was, of course, the D.C. sniper, for those not in the D.C. area.) I'm sure all this means is a bunch of guests gabbing about the case, but...

Wow. Has television come to this? From Uncle Miltie and I Love Lucy to... real-life execution as a hyped TV event? Have you seen executions treated as TV programming before (on the national level) or did we just reach a new low?

Tom Shales: In fact, there was serious discussion years ago about the possibility of televising executions as a crime deterrent, at least capital crimes -- I can imagine watching a documentary film with limited distribution that included footage of an actual execution. I would think they'd all be videotaped as a matter of record-keeping now, not that I want to buy a DVD of "best of's". Some of those syndicated shows that specialize in home video footage and web stuff have aired footage of people being killed - run over by trains or whatever. So the precedent is definitely, and unfortunately, there.........


How about replacing Leno with:: Pee Wee's Playhouse?

I hear Paul Reubens is trying to get back into the show biz swing of things -- heck I'd even happily watch re-runs of that over the dreck called the Leno Show these days.

Has NBC screwed up the Law and Order franchise by their stupidity?

Tom Shales: Pee Wee has revived his original off-Broadway stage-show version of the Playhouse and it's playing at a small theater in L.A., or so I heard him tell Conan O'Brien (how's that for going to the ultimate authority?) Pee Wee's punishment certainly didn't seem to suit his "crime." The whole thing was very unpleasant. Has NBC screwed up the L and O franchise? Well they have definitely ticked off Dick Wolf, the creator and exec producer. But throw enough money at him (the small amount of money that he doesn't already have, that is) and he will probably forgive & forget, and prepare the umpty-umpth spinoff.


Fairfax County, Va.: Having the fun of pretending I'm in George S's shoes and weighing an offer to host GMA, I guess the objection for me wouldn't be the fluff and froth (silliness, pop culture, cat videos, etc.) but what my family calls the sob-sister stuff.

This is where the morning shows start by featuring a family whose loved one has disappeared -- all of us know the loved one is probably now dead, but it makes sense to put their story and picture out there just in case. Then the body is found and magically, the relatives are still with us! Sharing their feelings, breaking down on camera, being exploited six ways from Sunday when there is no rational benefit to sharing all this pain on TV (from the family's perspective). And then it turns out, sometimes, that the husband or mother probably did the deed! And then we get to live through months if not years as the murder case with the supremely obvious villain unfolds in slow- motion, talking about it in all the creepy, exploitative, non newsworthy (but very ratings worthy) detail that started with the OJ case.

That's the part of the job that is completely and totally beneath George Stephanopoulos, no matter how big the paycheck. I hope he stays in the news business instead.

Tom Shales: You certainly have hit a deserving nail on the head. One little detail that irritates me: the host telling a relative of the missing child or teenager or whatever, "Our prayers are with you." Oh yeah. I can just picture Matt Lauer in his bunny-rabbit jammies kneeling beside his bed. "Our prayers are with you"? It's so insincere and transparent that it strikes me as cynical. There is no need for any of that kind of thing - just some sensitivity in dealing with someone who was not prepared to have the roof fall on her/his head. And how many of us are?


Washington, D.C.: I don't think George Steph or Chris Cuomo are good choices for GMA. I hate Cuomo - -as you state he is obnoxious, and is at the same time insecure and arrogant. If he gets the anchor job, I'll likey stop watching (and watch Today). George S doesn't seem to fit, either. I can't imagine there are not better choices -- either one of the weekend anchors or someone else in news.

Tom Shales: "George S" as you say has sort of earned it through years of faithful service - but it's not a company that makes widgets or wickets - people should get the jobs they deserve and have the talent to perform. I can't see George Steph sitting there morning after morning pretending to be deeply immersed in that parade of banality and mush that slogs through. Then again, offer me 20 million bucks and watch my "standards" crumble into dust..


IA: "Maybe she will have to have lots of work done" Ummm, don't you mean MORE work done? Check out pics throughout the years . . . Can't blame her, though, and I like her on GMA.

Tom Shales: Yes - I didn't want to be, what, "catty"? Really they all have work done. Look at Bill Plante, first-rate reporter for CBS and poster boy for skin-tightening and chin-lifting. (Or Joe Biden and his plug job for that matter, plus heaven knows what else - but so what, he looks good. Like Stewart Granger, I once said in print - and the man didn't even call to thank me! I wish he'd do something about the awful Delaware toll gates on I-95. How about hiring enough attendants to operate them, for starters. I guess they're so anxious to keep people in Delaware, they'll stoop to locking them in.).


Madison Avenue: I know that you are not a "Mad Men" devotee. However, I wonder if you saw the season finale. That was about as good an hour drama as I've seen in a long, long, long time. I was literally on the edge of my seat as the episode wound down.

Tom Shales: I peeked in. Again I was struck by how slow-moving some scenes were but I now consider that part of the show's apparent charm, or why people are attracted to it. And the "look" of the show, the re-creation of a 1950s world, is quite beautiful, I must admit. Of course sometimes I wish the actors would bow out so I could get a better look at the sets - which is not a good sign.......


Rockville, Md.: Two questions:

1. What's the real reason that "Reno 911" was canceled? Money? Ratings? Creative differences? Not many people really know.

2. Same thing, this time with another good comedy: Why on earth was "My Name is Earl" canceled? From all previous accounts, it was popular, making money, actually gaining an audience -- and was actually funny. Why was this show canceled?

Thank you.

Tom Shales: Hello Rockville, I will have to check these both out to get the facts. Reno 911 had a nice long run; the economics were probably against it, since it had a large cast, was basically scripted (or half-scripted) and didn't have a big rich network behind it. "My Name is Earl" made it through three or four seasons, didn't it? I thought it had a kind of dead-end premise, that people weren't dying to do what would happen next, but maybe you and many others WERE. You can catch reruns on cable and local stations.


Oh yeah. I can just picture Matt Lauer in his bunny-rabbit jammies kneeling beside his bed.: Ahhhhhhh apple spittle on keyboard! Thank you, haven't smiled in days.

Tom Shales: thank YOU


D.C.: It strikes me that these morning shows have the same entrenched formula, faux camaraderie, repetitive segments and inane babble. What differentiates one from the other?

Tom Shales: The only thing that differentiates them is the casting -- although don't you think TODAY, the leader, has more hard news, real news? I have always wondered why all the morning shows have to be like tabloid newspapers essentially. Maybe not HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR but close. Why couldn't just one show be like The Wall Street Journal or (to name another favorite) The Washington Post? There is an imported BBC international newscast at that hour, and in the evening, but it seems to go too far in the stodgy direction. We could use a happy medium, a solid smart news show with some lighter features and entertainment news but not all the soap operatics and "rock concerts" (who really wants a rock concert at 8:30 in the morning? Satan???? I think that is the worst of a lot of bad ideas, and now they ALL do it, don't they? Maybe CBS has country music instead of hard rock or something. Whatever, it's too loud for that time of day. It's just a big plug for whatever artist or group is performing anyway. It pays for itself, just like the musical acts on Letterman or SNL do. Strictly a matter of commerce.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Are you still watching Curb Your Enthusiasm? It's just completely jumped the shark. If it isn't Larry David screaming at someone, it's Larry getting into some absurd, unbelievable situation.

Tom Shales: Agree completely - although the few shows that have featured Seinfeld alumni seem a little better than the others. I think Larry David's character is now so objectionable, so disgusting, that a viewer always sides with his nemesis, whether it's a man in a wheelchair or a woman who wants to flash a bare midriff in the office. The incident with the pee-splattered religious painting was lamentable. David seems to be dying to offend people. Maybe he's tired and wants to be canceled. I think maybe he should get his wish. If I got MY wish, we'd sit and chat like this all day. Well, maybe not ALL day. But anyway time is up. Thank you thank you and thank you again. Great questions. Hope you will come again.


Tom Shales: Oh I may have made an error. THIS IS THE OFFICIAL (ahem) goodbye for this week.


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