A funny thing happened last September when the White House was attempting to both drum up support for health-care reform and fire a broadside at Fox News. President Obama sat for back-to-back interviews with each of television's Sunday-morning news show hosts: ABC's George Stephanopoulos, CBS' Bob Schieffer, CNN's John King, NBC's David Gregory and Univision's Jorge Ramos. Everyone, that is, except Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday.
It was no accident, given the Obama administration's claim of unfair, politically motivated coverage from Fox. If the White House could relegate Wallace, a veteran Washington reporter who worked for 14 years at ABC News before joining Fox, to the media equivalent of Siberia, they could de-legitimize the entire network. But the gesture ended up putting the president into a surprising quagmire: The other news organizations lined up with Fox, widely panning the strategy and coming to the network's defense.
“Anytime anybody in the political world uses guest bookings as either a gift or in a punitive way, you start playing games with the news,” observes Steve Capus, president of NBC News. “If you're an administration official, you ought to be able to answer questions from someone like Chris Wallace.”
On his own Sunday program, King asked White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel why the administration was singling out Fox News. “I was not asking to give the White House another platform to beat up on Fox News, nor was I asking the question to defend Fox News. They're part of the family,” King says. “I know the people who work for this president, some of them very well; they did not do this by accident. It was a calculated decision. And in the world of politics and the political moment we live in, I think it's a fascinating question and worth asking.”
Wallace, who finds being in this spotlight a bit surreal (“I didn't get into this business to talk about me,” he says), has not had an administration guest on his program since August, though it hasn't been for lack of trying. “We continue to request guests every week,” he says. “My feeling is we're not going to make it easy on them.”
In this political moment, and in a media environment increasingly divided ideologically, the Sunday shows may be the last redoubt of in-person, feet-to-the-fire cross-examination. They occupy a unique standing in the TV news business. On the one hand, they remain the conduit through which the White House presses its political strategy, and prime guests increase the caché of the shows. On the other hand, news departments often use the Sunday shows to debate and debunk, cementing their power on what continues to be a prime political battleground. The balance of power on Sunday morning may be skewed toward the newsmakers, but the relationship is a mutually beneficial one—if, at times, testy.
At CNN, the news that John King will leave State of the Union at the end of the year to take over the 7 p.m. weeknight hour previously occupied by Lou Dobbs cements the network's all-news-no-opinion mantra. But the clear pressure that CNN is under to fill King's chair on Union underscores the importance of the Sunday-morning venue. Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S., says the network is “extremely committed” to State of the Union. The show, which launched in January, “has become an important franchise,” he says. “They book the best newsmakers, and they break news. We believe it's an important time period for any news organization to compete in.”
“What is said on these programs appears in newspapers and thus on the Internet and throughout the media ecosystem,” says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. “That's probably not true for most TV shows.”
SMALL VIEWERSHIP, BIG INFLUENCE
The Sunday news-show audience is comparatively small. Meet the Press, the most-watched program, is averaging 3.4 million viewers this year, followed by ABC's This Week (2.8 million), CBS' Face the Nation (2.7 million), Fox News Sunday (1.2 million), and CNN's State of the Union and Univision's Al Punto, both of which average around 500,000 viewers. (Meet the Press adds 495,000 viewers for its rebroadcast on MSNBC, while Fox News Sunday pulls in another 1.9 million on Fox News Channel.) And viewers are not in the younger demographics coveted by advertisers. But the Sunday shows still command an influential audience: Washington insiders, policymakers and the rest of the media.
“It's not the biggest audience out there,” Wallace concedes. “It's the quality of the audience. People pay attention to what's said on Sundays. Whether it's the White House or top congressional politicians of whatever stripe, they save their big ammunition for Sunday morning.”
While this has always put these shows in an enviable position, they run the risk of being turned into a bullied pulpit. King, who hopes that he can lure some of those newsmakers to his upcoming weekday program, says he is still getting used to the machinations of Sunday-show bookings that allow administration officials to guide the political conversation.
“This is one part of the Sunday universe that could use a bit of a revolution,” he says. “I think we all as a group have given the administration too much power to weigh in and say we'll give you this person or that person. As opposed to saying, I'd really like to talk to Secretary X this week because this issue is front and center right now and the American people need some answers.”
Wallace is hardly the only Sunday host to find himself in a pushback battle with the administration. Last January, when Emanuel sat for his first Meet the Press interview since becoming President Obama's chief of staff, he was clearly irritated when Gregory pressed him hard on the administration's $700 billion stimulus package.
“The administration was not happy with that [interview],” Capus says. “But David was doing his job. I don't really care whether somebody likes or doesn't like an interview.”
In the wake of intense criticism over its Fox maneuver, the administration seems to have backed off—and even disavowed—its strategy of ostracization. Recently, Obama senior advisor David Axelrod appeared on Fox News for a post-Election Day debriefing with congressional correspondent Major Garrett. Anita Dunn, the White House communications director who escalated the administration's clash with Fox News by calling it “a wing of the Republican party,” stepped down from her post last week. And Garrett is rumored to be on the docket to interview the president in China this week.
The evolution of the Sunday programs is closely watched in media circles. The changes at CNN and speculation about Stephanopoulos' role at ABC News—and the possibility that he might replace Diane Sawyer as co-host of Good Morning America—continue the upheaval at the shows that began when longtime Meet the Press host Tim Russert died suddenly in June 2008.
Klein would not discuss replacements for King, but in-house candidates under consideration include Candy Crowley and Suzanne Malveaux. King called the decision to leave “difficult.” But he credited the performance of State of the Union for helping to launch him to primetime. “I'm fully confident that one of the reasons they came to me is because they like what we're doing on Sunday and they're proud of it,” he says.
Over at ABC, Stephanopoulos is reluctant to give up This Week for GMA, according to sources. Having a Sunday host pulling double duty on a weekly news program is not unprecedented; Schieffer did it when he was interim anchor of the CBS Evening News. But morning television is, as he puts it, a notoriously punishing job.
“I think George would be terrific at it,” Schieffer says. “But I would just say this: 'George, I hope you know what you're gettin' into, son.'”
King says that he briefly considered doing both jobs. But, he says, “I don't think for a prolonged period of time you can have the energy, passion, focus and discipline you need to do both.”
GMA is a far more important franchise for ABC from a profit standpoint, earning $400 million in ad revenue in 2008, according to data provided by TNS. The aggregate ad spending on the four Sunday-morning broadcast network programs was $71.3 million for the first eight months of the year, TNS says. This marks an 18% decline compared to the same period in 2008, when the programs benefited from political ad dollars.
Stephanopoulos declined repeated requests for an interview. In an e-mail exchange, he wrote that he is “proud of the steady progress that [This Week has] been making. After each show, I ask myself: Did I hold the headliners accountable? Ask about what viewers at home want to know? Moderate a stimulating, engaging and educational roundtable? If I can answer yes to those three questions, it's a successful show. Winning [the ratings] is fun, too.”
When This Week's Aug. 2 show surpassed Meet the Press in both total viewers and news' target demographic of 25-54-year-olds, it was cause for celebration at ABC's Washington bureau. But the NBC stalwart continues to outpace its Sunday-show rivals. When Gregory was named permanent host in December 2008, many observers wondered if he could hold onto the lead that the indomitable Russert had built. MTP dipped below 3 million viewers last May, a number not seen since August 2007. But it has remained the most-watched Sunday program for 417 of the past 421 weeks.
This Week notched a slight uptick (1%) year-to-year (Jan. 1 to Nov. 1), though it fell 9% in the demo. (All of the Sunday shows experienced declines compared to 2008, when the presidential campaigns and the election juiced news ratings in general. MTP is off 18% in total viewers and 22% in the demo.)
The Sunday landscape has also had to make room for a new program at Spanish-language network Univision, underscoring the growing influence of Hispanics in media and politics. Al Punto was launched in 2007, with Ramos as host, in conjunction with Univision's first presidential Spanish-language debate. Al Punto, according to Univision Networks President César Conde, has “become a staple for influencers here in the United States and internationally, particularly in Latin America.” Guests have included everyone from the president and vice president to Newt Gingrich and Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele.
'A CATEGORY UNTO THEMSELVES'
For the news divisions, the Sunday shows' influence in Washington and with the rest of the media far outweigh their modest return on investment. During a Nov. 8 appearance on Meet the Press, Gen. George Casey, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, waded into the Afghanistan troop-strength debate. His pronouncement that the U.S. needs to send “additional forces” to the eight-year-old war there ricocheted through the media, getting picked up byReuters, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo News and countless blogs.
“I remember interviewing David Brinkley many years ago, and him saying these programs are an intercom for official Washington to speak to each other. Even now, they still perform that role,” says PEJ's Rosenstiel. “That makes these programs different than almost every other [type of] news program on television. They are a category unto themselves.”
At a time when technology has given seemingly everyone a virtual microphone, could the Sunday programs ensure their survival by resisting change? “These shows are still vital, and I think they will be even more important as the landscape becomes more fragmented,” Gregory says.
Meet the Press, currently in its 63rd season, is the longest-running program on television. And like the other series in the category, it shows no signs of waning.
“They have survived the advent of the evening news,” Rosensteil says. “They have survived the advent of local news, cable news and the Internet. I'm not in the business of predictions, but they've outlasted pretty much everything.”