‘Week’ gets tweaked as ratings hit bottom

Show's most dramatic change: No journalist roundtable

NEW YORK — If veteran ABC News producer Tom Bettag is right, the problem with the net’s struggling Sunday morning news roundup isn’t host George Stephanopoulos — it’s the genre’s tired format that has to go.

On Sept. 7, Bettag will put his theory into action when rolling out a dramatically revamped “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” (Show’s new title has yet to be revealed.)

It’s quite a test for the widely respected Bettag, who has been the exec producer of “Nightline” for a decade. In a never-before arrangement, ABC News prexy David Westin has given Bettag control over both shows and all accompanying staff.

The most dramatic change will be dissolution of the show’s signature journalist roundtable. Bettag feels the segment isn’t unique enough.

The roundtable was launched by “This Week” more than 30 years ago during host David Brinkley’s rule. Current roundtablers Michele Martin, George Will and Fareed Zakaria will still have a role on the show, most likely headlining their own news segs.

“They want to marshal the strengths of ‘Nightline’ and build a broadcast that is more richly produced, smarter and more current. The agreed-upon mandate is to focus more on reporting, less on punditry,” one ABC exec says.

The Washington-centric show has always been its own particular species, produced almost entirely in the studio and centered on a newsmaker interview that is a must watch for politicos and policy wonks.

In diverging from this long tradition, Bettag has ordered a new set for “This Week” and sophisticated graphics. Program will open with a news roundup read by Stephanopoulos.

While there will still be some sort of newsmaker interview, there will be a significant number of pieces reported from the field, whether by Stephanopoulos or other ABC News correspondents.

The competish — NBC’s “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert and CBS’ “Face the Nation” with Bob Schieffer — says there is nothing wrong with the Sunday morning format. Rather, it’s Stephanopoulos that viewers haven’t warmed to, they say.

“When it comes to ‘This Week,’ there is a George problem,” one network news exec says.

When Stephanopoulos took over as host of the show for ABC News journos Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson, he seemed to have plenty going for him — telegenic good looks, a demure style and a powerful political resume. And he had done well as a member of the show’s roundtable.

But many in the public still associate Stephanopoulos with being a top White House aide to President Bill Clinton. Others think he has a tendency to be too timid on air.

ABC News execs have watched aghast as ratings for “This Week” fell to their lowest point in the show’s long history. Show lost the No. 2 spot to “Face the Nation,” while “Meet the Press” grew all the more powerful.

Looking for a ratings cure, “This Week” dispatched Stephanopoulos to points around the country and world in recent months to conduct on-site interviews. So far, it hasn’t made a difference.

Neither Bettag nor Stephanopoulos are talking to the press at the moment, although Bettag’s comments to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz debunking the Sunday morning format struck some as ungracious.

Some speculate that Bettag is looking for the next landing place, considering that ABC parent company, Walt Disney, almost canned “Nightline” last year.

“Don’t forget they are living on borrowed time,” one industryite says.

Before arriving at ABC, Bettag was the exec producer of “CBS Evening News With Dan Rather.”