Analysis: Schieffer, Stephanopoulos, Wallace and Crowley consider the prospects for one of TV's most durable formats
Amid hand wringing over the direction of TV’s Sunday-morning talk shows, Bob Schieffer sees little need to change “Face The Nation, the program he has hosted since 1991. He sees no reason to add more segments to accommodate shorter attention spans or incorporate tweets into the broadcast. “If you are trying to get behind the headlines,” says Schieffer, “I think the way you do that is by sitting people down in a calm way and talking to them.”
For Schieffer, the most compelling element in “Nation,” the most-watched on broadcast TV, is one that has been there all along. “We have to just keep doing what we are doing,” he says. “We still try to do what they did on the first show: Figure out what the topical news of the week is and try to get the key players in front of the camera and sit them down and ask them questions. It’s not much more complicated than that.”
Yet for NBC, the task has grown more difficult. The network announced last week that political reporter Chuck Todd would take over its venerable “Meet The Press” on September 7, after the show slipped in the ratings during David Gregory’s tenure. Veteran political correspondent Andrea Mitchell is expected to take a “central” role in the program over coming weeks, according to a memo from NBC News President Deborah Turness, and “MTP” will feature new faces as well. “We have some exciting plans to evolve and update the broadcast under Chuck’s leadership that we will be sharing with you shortly,” Turness said.
All this takes place as detractors suggest Sunday shows, which once provided the last word on national affairs, now merely add to a growing cacophony buttressed by social media and cable networks. “The competition to these talk shows has gotten much greater,” says Len Downie, the former Washington Post executive editor who is a media professor at Arizona State University. He cites everything from political blogs to “instantaneous opinion” delivered via social media to Politico, the politics-focused digital and print media operation founded in 2007.
With all that available, Downie says, “I think the shows have become relatively predictable.” And they have nimble competitors who sound off more frequently, says Caroline Heldman, chair of the politics department at California’s Occidental College. The programs “are competing with online, inside-Beltway sources that provide coverage in real time throughout the week,” she says, such as Firedoglake or the web site of The Weekly Standard.
Even so, “Face The Nation” and ABC’s “This Week” have seen growth in viewership among people between the ages of 25 and 54 – the demographic most desired by sponsors of news programming. Others have not. “Face The Nation,” which nabs on average more than 3 million viewers a week, increased its viewership of people between 25 and 54 by about 2.2% season to date as of August 10th, according to Nielsen. Similar viewership of ABC’s “This Week” rose nearly 16% in that time period. Meanwhile, NBC’s “Meet the Press” lost about 5.7% of its viewership in the demographic, while Fox News Sunday, broadcast on Fox stations and affiliates , saw a dip of about 7.8% among viewers between 25 and 54 (the show grew its total viewership by 4% in that time period and also accumulates viewers with three replay airings on Fox News Channel). CNN’s “State of the Union” saw that audience fall by 13.6%.
Just as NBC is making changes, so too have some of the programs reworked the way they operate. ABC’s “This Week” has sped up its pace while broadening the subject matter it tackles, says George Stephanopoulos, the anchor of the program. “What I think you want to do over the course of an hour is give people more variety,” says Stephanopoulos during an interview in his ABC News office in New York. “The Sunday mission has to evolve as the entire environment has evolved.” Over the past 18 months, “Fox News Sunday” has incorporated social-media interaction into the program, says anchor Chris Wallace. Where the program once put guests on first, then turned to panel discussions, things have become “more free-flowing,” he says. At the end of the program, a “Power Player” segment has focused on younger people such as Ivanka Trump.
“The truth is, we’re always looking for ways to re-invent what we do, how the show looks, what we talk about, how we talk about it, who we invite, pretty much everything that makes up a Sunday show,” says Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent and anchor of “State of the Union.” The scrutiny can affect everything from the balance of CNN reporters and guests, she says, to how much the show relies on political experts or relative outsiders.
There is reason to court audiences aggressively. While “Meet The Press” has seen ratings fall, it continues to snare the greatest amount of ad revenue among the programs, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. In 2013, “Meet The Press” took in more than $55 million, compared with nearly $25 million for “Face The Nation,” $20.7 million for “This Week,” according to Kantar. The other networks may work to lure advertisers if NBC cannot stabilize ratings for it show, which has been on the air since 1947 and is the longest-running TV program in broadcast history.
One challenge all the programs have? Courting viewers who have grown weary of a heightened divide between proponents from the left and right, and the polarized arguments they foment. Washington gridlock “has turned people off, and that’s a problem we have to deal with,” says Wallace. As such, many of the programs have ventured beyond the confines of the nation’s capital. “Face The Nation” has delved into foreign affairs and other topics of national importance, says Schieffer, particularly when the business of Washington slows down. “It’s still the same: Just trying to figure out what’s making news each week and talking to the key players.”
The anchors seem divided on whether or not to abandon what has become one of the genre’s central conceits: Seeing an authoritative journalist try to push guests off talking points and even catch them reversing a previously held position. In Stephanopoulos’ view, that kind of “theater” has become “an anachronism.” Sure, he says, “ I listen and follow up and hold people accountable. I think the audience definitely wants that,” but he adds: “I don’t think they are necessarily into the show of trying to catch someone in a contradiction.”
Others think the practice of holding officials’ and lawmakers’ feet to the fire remains an important service. “We really research in depth the topics, the substance of what the guests have said in the past and various comments they have made on camera,” says Wallace. “I think that to abandon that is a mistake.”
While the format may be under some scrutiny at present,few people think the shows are in danger of disappearing. Their mission of helping viewers understand what is taking place in the world around them keeps them relevant, says Schieffer. Viewers “turn on these broadcasts because they are looking for context. They are looking for analysis,”” he says. “I think we just have to keep thinking about what it is they need to know about and how we can help them.”