“There’s nothing like actually being in the chair,” George Stephanopoulos said. “That takes some getting used to.”
It was the morning of Monday, March 3, and Mr. Stephanopoulos, 42, was on the telephone from Washington, D.C. The last 72 hours had been a whirlwind for the still fresh-faced former Clinton aide turned journalist, now ensconced in David Brinkley’s old lounger as the moderator of ABC News’ Sunday-morning pulpit, This Week . The afternoon of Friday, Feb. 28, Mr. Stephanopoulos jetted off to Paris to interview French Foreign Minister Dominque de Villepin. He interviewed Mr. de Villepin on Saturday and flapped back across the pond the same afternoon, managing to roll into his studio at 4:45 a.m. Sunday, only to have the trans-Atlantic exclusive bumped- sacre bleu !-back later in the telecast to accommodate breaking news of the arrest of Al Qaeda operative and Ron Jeremy look-alike Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Mr. Stephanopoulos could be forgiven for sounding a little tired. Bill and Hillary Clinton were no picnic, but this Sunday-morning television business-was it harder than he thought it would be?
“I thought it was going to be pretty hard,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “I guess the way I would answer that is: It’s a little harder than it looks.”
So far, the Sunday-morning business has been a little hard on Mr. Stephanopoulos. Since taking over as the sole host of This Week in September-replacing longtime co-anchors Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts-Mr. Stephanopoulos has not exactly emerged as the breakout boy wonder his employers hoped he might be. During the recent February ratings “sweeps” period, This Week finished an uninspired third, far behind NBC’s perennial leader, Meet the Press , and eclipsed by the suddenly agile Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer on CBS. A Feb. 26 NBC announcement about Meet the Press ‘ success threw an elbow in Mr. Stephanopoulos’ direction, crowing that This Week ‘s February performance was its worst in 16 years. The following day, a headline in The Washington Post read Stephanopoulos CAN’T ‘MEET THE PRESS’ OR ‘FACE THE NATION.’
Mr. Stephanopoulos, no stranger to shots in the press, was unruffled. ABC News stood by its guy and blamed James Naismith; they argued that This Week ‘s February ratings were negatively impacted by the network’s decision to telecast N.B.A. games. One network executive said that for three of the four Sundays in the month, This Week had its time changed or was totally pre-empted in the western part of the country. Mr. Stephanopoulos said only: “I know what happened in the past month and I just don’t think it was about the show.”
No naïf, Mr. Stephanopoulos knew that people would be gunning for him. There was bound to be tremendous attention upon his transition to Sunday mornings, given his high political profile, his association with a controversial Presidency, his relative youth, his journalistic inexperience and the fact that he was replacing two popular if fading hosts in Ms. Roberts and Mr. Donaldson. This attention wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; ABC News certainly hoped Mr. Stephanopoulos would grab some when the network tapped him for the job.
But if the impatient glare upon Mr. Stephanopoulos’ performance seems out of sync with the traditional gentility of Sunday-morning television-where host seats are practically tenured, like university chairs-it signals the extent to which the sleepy pancake format has morphed into big business, both on the balance sheet and within the culture at large. All of the Sunday-morning network shows, including Mr. Stephanopoulos’, are profitable, with revenues in the tens of millions. An NBC source said that the network charges $70,000 for a 30-second commercial spot on Meet the Pres s and makes $50 million annually on the show.
Mr. Schieffer, who has been hosting Face the Nation since 1992, called profitability Sunday-morning television’s “dirty little secret.” “These broadcasts make a lot of money,” he said.
The Sunday-morning shows have also retained profitability and relevance in a time where other elements of network news have been threatened by the continued emergence of cable and the Internet. Part of this success can be attributed to news itself -Sunday shows have benefited from a surplus of provocative and attention-grabbing news that stretches back to President Clinton’s impeachment, through the Florida ballot fiasco, on to Sept. 11 and beyond.
What’s more, as TV news has changed, Sundays have become more distinct. Though these shows can be icky insiders’ feasts-across the dial, you can hear the televised chatter practically ricochet around the Beltway, as access-to-power types send messages, veiled and unveiled, to each other-the once-dusty genre has emerged as a welcome antidote to the cluttered cacophony of the cable era. They’re mostly a shrill-free zone. Sunday shows do contain opinion and commentary, but the opinions offered are usually less strident than those offered on cable shows. Indeed, Tony Snow, an opinionated ex-Bushie who hosts Fox News Sunday -also rising in the ratings-looks like David Frost next to his cable colleague Bill O’Reilly.
Mr. Russert likened Sunday programs to an “oasis.”
“When I was asked about the explosion of cable and the Internet, my view has always been that those complement, not compete, with Meet the Press ,” said Mr. Russert, who is now in his 12th year moderating the program. “If you do it differently, if you do it smartly, if you are willing to say to the country, ‘We are going to have the Secretary of State on this morning, and the interview is going to go for 32 minutes without interruption’-that’s a very important statement on television.”
The other important Sunday-morning ingredient is objectivity-or, at least, an effort to appear objective. Though there’s a clear, feed-the-beast symbiosis between the Sunday programs and politics partisans, all of the hosts go to great lengths to at least appear like they’re playing it straight down the middle. It may be an institutional delusion-who doesn’t think the hosts have their own prejudices and pet issues?-but Mr. Russert thinks that Sunday audiences want evenhandedness, which is interesting, considering cable news programmers have collectively concluded that audiences thirst for opinion (see MSNBC, cable television).
A former counsel to former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mr. Russert considers it a complement when people can’t figure out his politics.
“We get inundated by e-mails, as you might expect, and letters,” Mr. Russert said. “And invariably they will say, ‘Well, what is your party, are you a Democrat, or Republican, what are you?’ Because the contrast to what is seen on a lot of the cable shows is so striking to them. And the vast majority are very appreciative that there is someone who is trying to conduct a program in a fair and balanced-“
Mr. Russert stopped himself and laughed, realizing he’d walked right into the coy motto of the Fox News Channel.
“An objective way,” he said, correcting himself.
Still, Mr. Schieffer, an old friend of Mr. Russert’s, suggested objectivity is in the eye of the beholder. “Too many people, objectivity is something that agrees with their point of view,” he said.
And even though the hosts themselves steer away from actual rabble-rousing, the Sunday programs continue to be influential agenda-setters in the political world. All of the shows keep close watch on how often their programs are cited in the tide of news stories that invariably follow the appearances of high-profile guests, especially those from the White House. Meet the Press generates more news than any other program on the network; Mr. Russert said his show’s researchers believed that Meet the Press was now “the most quoted news program in the world.”
“Driving home from the show, I’ll listen to the top of the news on WPOP, the CBS national radio news, and invariably Meet the Press or a Sunday show will lead the newscast,” Mr. Russert said. “It’s on the wires all day long, the evening newscast that night, all the cable all day Sunday, the front page of the Monday papers, the Monday morning shows on the networks. And then at the White House briefings with Ari Fleischer, invariably the lead questions are all based on something that was said the day before.”
“It echoes around the world,” Mr. Russert said.
Still, there are always problems. All of the hosts struggle to pry their media-savvy guests off their predetermined scripts. (“A lot of times, they don’t act like you and me, they act like robots,” said Mr. Snow. “You want to get flesh and blood back into the equation.”) Then there are the unrepentant Sunday rotators-guests, usually the most in-demand ones, who will hop from studio to studio, surfing the Sunday-morning interview circuit like 15-foot swell in Baja.
“Without doing a poll, I think I could speak for everybody who does a Sunday show: We don’t like that at all,” Mr. Schieffer said. “That’s the one problem I have with this current administration, they sometimes like to put their guys on all of the shows. I understand they have a message to put out, but we just don’t like it and we try not to do it.”
None of this is especially new to Mr. Stephanopoulos, who spent a few years as a panelist on This Week before inheriting top billing. Mr. Stephanopoulos may be new to journalism, but prior to taking over the Sunday-morning chair he went through a kind of reportorial obstacle course, traveling the world on assignments for World News Tonight , showing up regularly on Nightline as an analyst, and even making a splash as a guest host (with wife Alexandra Wentworth) on Good Morning America .
“I had a lot of broad experience,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “Like anything else, there are skills that you have to learn and improve on. Making the leap from reporter to anchor-anybody who has made that leap has faced the same challenges.”
But Mr. Stephanopoulos won’t get to work out the kinks in private. For the foreseeable future, he will be the most-scrutinized person on Sunday morning television. Mr. Banner, Mr. Stephanopoulos’ executive producer at This Week , emphasized that people behind the program knew “this was going to be a marathon, not a sprint.” He said the show has enjoyed its fair share of journalistic successes and big guest gets, including newsmakers like-surprise-Al Gore, to-well, here’s a bigger surprise-Oklahoma Republican Senator Don Nickles, who told Mr. Stephanopoulos that there should be a new election to replace Trent Lott.
“I think on the whole we have made humungous progress and we are extremely competitive,” Mr. Banner said.
What was encouraging to Mr. Banners is that the perceived biggest negative about hiring Mr. Stephanopoulos-his career as a Democratic partisan-has not impacted his show’s ability to get guests, something that Mr. Snow, sitting on the other side, acknowledged.
“He’s done a pretty good job in getting Republican guests,” Mr. Snow said.
Still, Mr. Stephanopoulos faces high expectations, some of them set by his own employer. ABC took a not-your-father’s-Oldsmobile approach to promoting the show, implicitly selling the host’s youth and good looks and promising a different kind of Sunday-morning program. So far, the changes haven’t been seismic. This Week is now a more modern-looking show than its predecessors, with slicker sets and graphics, but it’s a muted, Sharper Image kind of modern. At it’s core, it’s still a meat-and-potatoes Sunday show, from Mr. Stephanopoulos’ efforts to play it fair on both sides, to its roundtable finale and surviving panelist George Will’s omnipresent bow tie.
Surely Mr. Stephanopoulos faced a challenge in replacing two aging hosts and hanging on to their loyal audience while at the same time cultivating his own. But Mr. Banner argued that the notion that Mr. Stephanopoulos would bring in a new tide of young people to Sunday morning was overcooked.
“Sunday-morning shows, by demographic, are just not watched by a lot of young people,” Mr. Banner said. “George was, quite honestly, the right person for the job, not because of his age, but because of his experience.”
But in the strange science of Sunday morning, Mr. Stephanopoulos has not yet found his niche. Whereas Mr. Russert infuses his show with a blue-collar-style populism (witness all the references to his native Buffalo), Mr. Snow does his anti-pompous politics-ain’t-rocket-science deal, and the moderate Mr. Schieffer stews a kind of Dan Rather–meets–Orville Redenbacher folksiness, Mr. Stephanopoulos’ ethos is harder to locate. Part of the problem is fame: Mr. Stephanopoulos was so known and so elite a quantity that pretending to be anything but a high-level insider would have been immediately seen as a pose.
Mr. Stephanopoulos is smart enough to admit he is still finding his place.
“Russert has been doing this show for more than a decade,” he said. “Schieffer has had a lifetime in broadcasting and has been doing his show for more than a decade. You have got to give it time.”
“You have to develop your own style,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “I think I am getting there.”