Sunday Morning Missionary
Legendary producer Tom Bettag takes on The Week
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/29/2004 8:00:00 PM
Tom Bettag has some choice words for the ritualistic world of Sunday-morning news: "ponderous, pompous and absolutely humorless."
That's strong language coming from the executive producer of This Week with George Stephanopoulos, an also-ran behind Tim Russert's Meet the Press ratings machine and even Bob Scheiffer's Face the Nation.
"There is a sense that guest spots belong to the Council of Foreign Relations, former diplomats and State Department people." Pursing his lips and nodding his head in a staccato rhythm, he adds: "They...all…talk…like…Wal...ter…Cron…kite…and…that's the way it is."
Bettag faces the Herculean task of making Stephanopoulos, best known as a key player in Bill Clinton's first White House run, into a credible heir to the legendary David Brinkley—or even a worthy successor to his mismatched predecessors Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. And he is fervent in his belief that the genre is stale. With time, he says Stephanopoulos can take the competition down.
"There is a dreadful sameness to all the Sunday-morning broadcasts," Bettag says. "Nothing has changed since David Brinkley started This Week more than 20 years ago. They are all doing the Brinkley show in one fashion or another."
A 30-year news veteran, Bettag has the background for this kind of bravado. He has won 29 Emmys, five Peabodys and remade CBS Evening News to fit Dan Rather's aggressive style after Cronkite, then "the most trusted man in America," bowed out. He followed that up with an eight-year partnership with Ted Koppel that kept Nightline fresh and compelling when network executives wanted to drop them for a late-night comedy show.
Since early in his career, the 59-year-old Bettag has been a news missionary. Six-feet tall, gaunt, dressed in khakis and a denim shirt, he looks more suited to a hike in the Rockies than a Washington power lunch. Yet he has long had a reputation as a producer who can make compelling television without a loss of gravitas. Even as the show's production crunch heats up on Friday night, Bettag sets a low-key example. An avid outdoorsman, he bikes to the Popeyes spot near ABC News' headquarters in downtown Washington and picks up dinner for the crew. Bettag is a calm, low-key player in a role often occupied by screamers and other egos.
"He's a brilliant producer," says Stephanopoulos. "And he's got a great bedside manner."
Rather, who worked with him for five years, says it was Bettag who popularized getting anchors out from behind the news desk and putting them in remote locations. Koppel, who has worked with the master since 1991, credits him with the "day in the life" concept—tagging along with presidential candidates or other stellar figures.
Bettag, who took over This Week last year, has been working some of those same elements into the show. And after a seven-year ratings slide dating back to Brinkley's departure, things are beginning to turn around. Bettag has juiced up the show with faster-paced segments, more graphics and a redesigned set.
During the May sweeps, This Week averaged 2.5 million viewers and a 0.8 rating in the 25- to 54-year-old demo. That's up 17% in total viewers over the 2003 sweeps and up 33% in the key age bracket. Still, Face the Nation beats This Week most Sundays. Meet the Press, the Sunday leader, posted 4.4 million viewers and a 1.1 rating in the 25-54 bracket. Fox Television's Fox News Sunday lagged in fourth with 1.6 million viewers and a 0.5 rating.
"The average viewer's age is something like 53. This is the only broadcast where ratings are still measured on total households and not the younger demographics," adds Bettag. "I have sons 35 and 33. They're real news buffs, but Sunday news is totally off-putting for them."
Bettag says he is attempting to transform This Week so his kids, Carl and Andrew, watch it because they want to, not because it keeps their father employed.
Bettag's hand is also evident in Stephanopoulos' steadily improving performance. As a frequent Nightline commentator, Stephanopoulos perfected the informed-yet-breezy delivery. Yet when he sat in This Week's anchor chair, he screamed stiff. Even his relentless executive producer had his doubts when ABC tapped him as a Nightline analyst. "I was one of the people who were really skeptical," says Bettag, "But [late ABC News President] Roone Arledge wanted him." And Arledge's knack for picking talent was legendary.
To most at ABC, the dilemma seemed intractable, but Bettag has dealt with tricky handoffs before. "When I was in charge of the transition from Cronkite to Rather, the theory was for Dan to slip into Walter's seat and pretend nothing happened," says Bettag. "It almost exploded. Dan was wearing sweaters, and the ratings went to hell."
Just as Rather couldn't duplicate Cronkite's fatherly demeanor, nor could Stephanopoulos copy Brinkley, who managed his weekly roundtables with flinty, detached skepticism. "George is a much younger person, a much less stuffy person," Bettag says. "He has a certain gravitas, but not too much."
Rather, who says Bettag was "a godsend" in those dark days starting out at Evening News, thinks his old producer may be Stephanopoulos' salvation. "If Stephanopolous has it in him to be a major news anchor, Tom will get it out of him," says Rather.
To build on Stephanopoulos' strengths, Bettag freed him from the anchor desk's tether for part of each show. He now reels off weekly headlines and holds shorter interviews standing from the set's "kitchen." There are more pretaped interviews from the road. Three weeks ago, Stephanopoulos traveled to Illinois to meet Senate candidates Barack Obama and Alan Keyes. In April, he jetted to Paris for a last minute interview with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.'s envoy to Iraq.
Added to the end of each show is "The List," a rundown of the past week's most memorable images, comedians' takes on the news and memorials to public figures who passed away—a punchy coda designed to hold viewers through the entire broadcast.
To make more ratings headway, This Week is also counting on scheduling help from ABC and affiliates. The network launches Good Morning America Weekend in October, which should provide a sorely needed lead-in. Bettag and his team are also hoping to gain ground in the rivalry for Washington-based guests after ABC's local affiliate moves the show to 9 a.m. from 11:30 a.m., the Siberia of Sunday TV.
But Bettag says he has no illusions about retaking the top spot in the near term. "In the same way it took Russert years and years to overtake This Week, it's going to take years for us to gain back that spot," he says.
Face the Nation anchor Bob Schieffer, whose known Bettag for 35 years, is impressed with his work on This Week. "They're formidable competition now," he says, but he doesn't believe the Sunday format needs retooling, calling it the smartest morning on TV. "Every time somebody tries to change the format with bells and whistles, it's a spectacular failure," he says.
He convinced ABC brass to let him focus most of his energies on This Week, while remaining Nightline senior executive producer. To generate new ideas, he combined the two show's production teams. "I thought I'd like to shake things up," he says. "Our Nightline people said there's a way to give viewers much more for their hour on Sunday."
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