Sunday morning talkshows draw a fraction of the viewers of evening news, but there are fewer gigs more prestigious in Washington, D.C., media circles than that of the host of one of the perennial programs.
That’s a reason why there’s so much speculation as to who will succeed George Stephanopoulos as the host of ABC’s “This Week,” as it marks a rare opening and a possible shakeup in a landscape that seldom sees such changes. And it comes just a year after David Gregory was tapped as host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” a move that has left the show with a still dominant, albeit smaller, lead.
“Meet the Press” has won in total viewers for 12 straight years. In fourth-quarter 2009, the program averaged 3 million viewers and remains on top in the 25-54 demo — news broadcasts skew older than the ad-attractive primetime 18-49 demo. “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” was second with 2.7 million, “Face the Nation” third at 2.6 million and the broadcast version of “Fox News Sunday” is fourth with 1.1 million. On the cable side, replays of “Fox News Sunday” on Fox News Channel averaged 1.7 million viewers in December, while CNN’s four-hour “State of the Union” averaged 547,000 in December (though the net has a large worldwide reach).
“This Week” and “Face the Nation” often flip-flop for second place, and, on rare occasion, can overtake “Meet the Press.” That never happened during the Tim Russert regime.
“The landscape has been very fluid in terms of audience and opportunity,” says Ian Cameron, executive producer of “This Week.” “George made great headway in closing the gap. It’s a three-way race.”
Says Michael Calderone, media reporter for Politico: “All this flux could be a good thing for the Sunday shows. A number of critics have felt the shows haven’t changed a lot over the years. They’re an institution and, in a lot of ways, they haven’t kept up with the times.”
The names mentioned as Stephanopoulos’ successors include Terry Moran (who hosted Jan. 24) and Jake Tapper (who hosted Jan. 17), as well as a return to the net by Ted Koppel, who reportedly would host three times a month but has been insistent on bringing along Tom Bettag as executive producer. There is no timetable for picking a successor, however.
“Do they go younger with Jake Tapper or with Ted Koppel?” asks David Zurawik, TV critic at the Baltimore Sun. “It mirrors confusion with all networks that they know what the future is but they don’t want to get ahead of the audience. … If I’m the person making that decision, I probably say we need to get a younger aud but I don’t want to be the guy who does that. If I put Jake in there, I might get massive rejection from viewers.”
“I think there is some flux right now,” says Gregory, who joined NBC News in 1995 and has covered three presidential campaigns. “It was a little unexpected that I would be more of a veteran in the landscape now, and I never thought of myself like that. I’m beginning to establish myself and put my stamp on the program. We’re staying on top of the ratings, which is a good thing that we’ve done in my first year.”
In the relatively small universe of viewers, the race among the Sunday talkers is not just defined by viewers but by the caliber of the guests they book. And while Russert established “Meet the Press” as the Cadillac of the genre, as it became a rite of passage for candidates to appear on the program if they were to have legitimacy on the national stage, competitors have made some efforts to land coups or unconventional media types. When “This Week” booked conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, the program had a big ratings week.
Unlike latenight talkshows, where it’s rare to see the same celebrity on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Show With David Letterman” in the same week, it often happens that one newsmaker could make the rounds on a Sunday morning. In fact, there’s a D.C. term for it — “The Full Ginsburg.” Moniker comes from Monica Lewinsky attorney William Ginsburg, who appeared on all five talkshows on the same morning back when Lewinsky was making headlines.
“We always want to have exclusive guests, but that doesn’t always work out,” says “This Week’s” Cameron. “It depends on what the story is. As much as we’d like to have guests that are unique to our broadcast, you want what’s in the viewers’ best interests.”
“It’s important that these guests do the Sunday programs and important that the public hear from its leaders,” says CNN political director Sam Feist.
Cameron adds that with many of the same guests appearing on the different shows, the likability of the moderator can play a key factor in which program the audience turns to.
“The host is significant, and has a lot to do with (ratings),” he says.
Calderone also mentions the reporters’ roundtable would be better suited to have younger journalists on board. If attracting more, and younger viewers, is an objective of the nets, then there needs to be more changeover at the roundtable.
“I think (Washington Post columnist) David Broder has been on ‘Meet the Press’ more than 400 times,” Calderone says. “There needs to be a generational changeover of writers who are gaining prominence and broke into journalism through blogging rather than newspaper and magazines.”
CNN has plans to revamp its “State of the Union” soon, as John King will exit in mid February to take on a primetime show. Among those mentioned as possible successors: Candy Crowley.
Adds Zurawik: “The fascinating thing about Sunday morning is that it’s still a public affairs sacred ground. Those shows think of the aud as citizens rather than consumers.”