The Biz: Campaigning for Sunday Ratings
George Stephanopoulos, Christianne Amanpour
With 24-hour access to video journalism on cable, your smartphone or iPad, nobody needs to wait until Sunday morning to find out what the presidential candidates have to say, right?
Don't tell that to the news divisions at CBS and ABC. Both are about to raise the stakes in the arena of Sunday inside-the-Beltway talk shows as they strive to remain the most important TV platform of the presidential campaign season.
Starting January 8, George Stephanopoulos will return to the moderator's chair at ABC's This Week, while holding on to his duties at Good Morning America. In April, Face the Nation, a half-hour program since it premiered on CBS in 1954, will expand to an hour to accommodate more conversation and analysis of the White House race.
Bob Schieffer, the program's moderator for the last 20 years, welcomes the chance to compete head-to-head with This Week and the perennial leader, NBC's Meet the Press with David Gregory, for a full hour. "I feel like I've been going to the plate with a Little League bat while everyone else has a big-league model," says Schieffer.
For ABC, restoring Stephanopoulos is an acknowledgement of how the Sunday habit is hard to change. Christiane Amanpour, the most respected international correspondent in television, was hired for This Week in 2010 with assurances that she could give it a more global focus.
But for decades, the bread and butter of Sunday-morning programs has been American politics. Even in 2011, a year of huge international stories, viewers fled from Amanpour's This Week, which fell to a distant third in the ratings while Meet the Press and Face the Nation have been fighting it out for first. The return of Stephanopoulos is seen as a statement by ABC News that it's committed to bringing the program back to its roots.
"George is a fine interviewer and he'll probably get some of those viewers back," says Schieffer. "I hope we picked up enough while he was away."
Some Washington insiders believe the venerable programs no longer "drive the conversation" as they say, and suggest Morning Joe has become a preferred venue for politicos and opinion leaders during the week. While the MSNBC coffee klatch is the show of the moment, the Sunday programs still own political news at the start of a new week. As one network news executive notes, "Google Meet the Press on Sunday afternoon and see what you get."
The Sunday shows also have decades of tradition and prestige that make them a force to be reckoned with. The press accessibility of candidates is measured by how often they appear on the programs (which also include Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace and CNN's State of the Union with Candy Crowley). Another factor in their favor: They are still profitable thanks to being relatively inexpensive to produce. Says Schieffer, "We just have to turn the lights on and ask the questions."
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