ABC’s This WeekGetting Nip ‘n Tucked: Bettag’s 30-Year Plan for Stephanopoulos

Wednesday, July 23

On Monday, July 21, Tom Bettag, the longtime executive producer of Nightline , who also is suddenly in charge of saving This Week with George Stephanopoulos , took a page from the late Roone Arledge’s playbook. Four days after ABC News announced it would combine the staffs of Nightline and This Week into a single morning-noon-night operation, Mr. Bettag headlined his first staff memo with a quote from the memoir of the legendary ABC executive who created This Week with David Brinkley in which he said he saw no reason “the Sunday-morning news ghetto had to be one great yawn. It was no accident that the Sunday-morning news audience diminished each succeeding mile beyond the beltway. I thought viewers deserved better.”

Less than a year after Mr. Stephanopoulos replaced This Week ‘s anchors Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, ABC is preparing a fourth incarnation of the show in its five-year struggle to rejuvenate it. And Mr. Bettag is making epic, Arledge-sized pronouncements: The talking-head format, he said, is tired; This Week -starting in September-will intersperse on-location segments with studio interviews; it will “revise” the roundtable. It sounds like Nightline for the terrycloth-robe-and-coffee bunch-wake up and smell the toothpaste!-and ABC suggested that Ted Koppel might produce a few pieces. Yee-ha ! Mr. Bettag is hoping he can make the show accessible to baby boomers who usually watch it in the rec room at grandpa’s senior center.

Here was Mr. Bettag’s big headline: He said Mr. Stephanopoulos would be a dominant anchor “for the next 30 years.”

We’ll just let that sink in for a moment.

He also called ABC’s commitment to This Week as big a dice-throw as “when Roone wanted to go to an hour and bring in Brinkley.”

“I may blow it,” he said, “but this is an attempt to be extremely ambitious about what we’re doing.”

If this seemed impressive, it also seemed to be an admission that ABC is impatient with Mr. Stephanopoulos’ growth as an anchor. Is the network reinventing its Sunday morning or is ABC News president David Westin reinventing Mr. Stephanopoulos?

Mr. Bettag said ABC executives considered the makeover last year, “but at that point we thought if we change the anchor, you don’t want to lose the audience.”

But they lost them anyway: Mr. Stephanopoulos has slid in the ratings, down to 2.7 million average viewers a week, ceding more ground to its traditionally neck-and-neck competitor, CBS’ Face the Nation , at 2.8 million viewers, and further behind NBC’s majestic Meet the Press with Tim Russert, which draws an average of 4.5 million viewers.

For all Mr. Bettag’s Arledge-isms, Arledge’s conception of This Week was really radical: It was fresher, smarter, better produced, better promoted than the stodgy Sunday-morning programs of the early 80′s, and it matched Reagan-era Washington exactly. And it had David Brinkley, who was about as smart and funny as a broadcaster gets, plus he knew about as much about being a broadcaster as it’s possible to know. He wore the show like a comfy old suit that showed the history of Washington, D.C., in its very stitching, but Mr. Arledge and his series of producers made sure the thing had the crack and dissatisfaction of a really smart, current news operation.

In this instance, George Stephanopoulos is a beautiful guy with the look of ambition and conscience who could easily be played by Jean-Pierre Léaud in a Truffaut movie: Mr. Stephanopoulos has already appeared in a couple of coming-of-age culture pieces- Primary Colors , The Anthem , Spin City , The War Room -this is the ideal next chapter, The 400 Blows This Week . As Mr. Stephanopoulos told The Observer last March, “You have to develop your own style. I think I am getting there.”

Mr. Bettag said there isn’t necessarily in the Sunday-morning chair: He wants to rebuild the show around Mr. Stephanopoulos as an eager beaver who thrives on legwork. On Sunday morning, the 42-year-old Stephanopoulos has appeared a bit green, a toothy Spider-Man to Tim Russert’s Hulk-which leaves CBS’ Bob Schieffer as Professor X from the X-Men. Mr. Stephanopoulos’ primary challenge, his handlers believed, was transcending his former career as a political operator for Bill Clinton without losing his super powers. That hasn’t happened-whereas Mr. Russert, also an ex-operative, seems to be able to have his massive cake and eat it too, Mr. Stephanopoulos has neutered himself in quest of fairness.

Mr. Bettag said he knew Mr. Stephanopoulos would take time. It took Mr. Russert three years to learn how to make a guy like Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean dance, or to sink John Edwards. Mr. Bettag said Mr. Stephanopoulos’ skills were still developing, a fact he marked as a strength.

“George is flexible,” he said, and “has certain skills that are developing. It’s not ‘that’s me and that’s the way I am, period.’ He will roll with it. He has a tone that is adaptable. The current problem is in playing this new role. He’s neither Brinkley nor Russert. Emulating them is not the right way to go.”

The average age of Sunday-morning talk-show audiences is 58. Mr. Bettag said he thinks Mr. Stephanopoulos’ youth will work for him. “It says something about the style of these programs that their viewers are so old,” he said. “There are lots of people in their 30′s and 40′s who I think feel excluded by these programs. They are by insiders for insiders. I think you can make a much more accessible program.”

To date, however, Meet the Press has 84 percent more viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 than This Week .

So far, ABC sees Mr. Stephanopoulos’ successes as his outside-the-studio efforts-his interview with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, his July 4 exclusive with Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer. Mr. Stephanopoulos did a bang-up segment on June 15 in which he shadowed John Kerry on the campaign trail. It had a warm newsmagazine feel, with footage of Mr. Kerry riding around on his motorcycle and Mr. Stephanopoulos ribbing the contender on the campaign jet.

“He’s terrific out in the field,” said Mr. Bettag. “Being able to have George out there on the stump gives you an infinitely better idea of what makes Kerry tick. It’s an old Nightline trick.” On Monday, Mr. Stephanopoulos flew to South Korea, where he will host the July 27 show on North Korea’s attempts to build a nuclear arsenal.

But some TV execs sense danger. “The thing they’ve got to watch out for is doing Nightline for Sunday morning,” said Steve Friedman, a former producer for NBC’s Today Show and CBS’ The Early Show . “Because it won’t work. The people who watch Sunday-morning shows like what they see. Everybody talks about new and different, but revolutions never work on TV.”

Mr. Friedman was also quick to point out that This Week ‘s struggle in the past few years was not Mr. Stephanopoulos’ burden exclusively.

“The fault of the Sunday-morning demise at ABC cannot solely be placed on George Stephanopoulos,” he said. “The ABC News management, which seems to roll on no matter what happens, certainly has certain culpabilities.”

Tonight, check out Nightline , hosted by Koppel look-alike Chris Bury …. Wait a minute, isn’t that Jimmy Kimmel, with a live hook-up to Claudia Schiffer? [WABC, 7, 11:30 p.m.]

Thursday, July 24

Tonight, Bill O’Reilly interviews Jerry Lewis on Fox Network’s The Pulse . Mr. Lewis manages to put some motion in the no-spin zone by remembering he slept with Marilyn Monroe. “It was nice, by the way,” says Mr. Lewis with a foot-wide grin, winking four times with his left eye. [WNYW, 5, 9 p.m.]

Friday, July 25

In the pilot episode of the new Showtime series Dead Like Me , a pretty, sarcastic, 18-year-old girl is killed and then reincarnated as a grim reaper who helps benevolently escort accident victims to the “other side.” They call her “undead.”

Guiding the heroine-played by relative newcomer Ellen Muth-through her travails is a host of characters who seem to be from the world of the television undead. Rebecca Gayheart-former star of Loving -plays Betty, a fashion-plate, bombshell reaper. Former Chicago Hope star and Sondheim interpreter Mandy Patinkin is Rube, the sweater-jacket-sporting head of the gloomy troupe. And playing Roxy, a tough, ballsy meter maid who moonlights as a death escort, is Jasmine Guy, best known as the prissy society girl Whitley from A Different World , the Cosby Show spin-off that aired from 1987 to 1993.

“Whitley would’ve found Roxy crass,” said Ms. Guy, calling from the Dead Like Me set in Vancouver, where the 13th episode is currently shooting. “One is all flowery in language, the other is succinct. Roxy is tough, she’s rude, she’s blunt. She’s no bullshit, whereas Whitley-Whitley was full of it.”

Ms. Guy-a lifelong Twilight Zone and Star Trek fan-said the sci-fi set is more merriment than moroseness. As for Mr. Patinkin, “he’s a joy. He makes the show so much deeper and intense. But you know, he has most of the dialogue because he’s the leader, so most of the time he’s internally going over his lines and we’re just sitting there looking at him. He’s the concentrated one, while we’re throwing spitballs at each other.” [Showtime, 48, 10 p.m.]

-Anna Jane Grossman

Monday, July 28

Peppy weather-jokester Dave Price starts his new job today as national weatherman for CBS’s The Early Show , after spending the last four years jousting with Jim Ryan over on Fox 5′s Good Day New York . He’s pretty happy about it. “It’s unreal!” he said. “It’s been a ball. I’ve been loitering around the studio, waiting for Harry’s autograph.” That’s Harry Smith, the male anchor.

If you’re wondering how Mr. Price got so peppy, here’s how: After he gets up at 3:30 a.m. and takes his dog for a walk-a golden retriever named Chance, as in “chance of showers”-he starts off “with a scooped-out bagel and a quarter pound of light tuna salad or salmon. The protein jolt is important. Protein gives me a quick high-that and 20 ounces of Diet Pepsi.” This will be Mr. Price’s first nationally televised weather report, so let’s hope he doesn’t call Missouri a borough. “I’ve been studying up on all 50 states,” he said. [WCBS, 2, 7 a.m.]

Tuesday, July 29

Did anybody catch Tom Brokaw in a crotch-enhancing flight suit as he flew an F-14 over Iraq on Discovery Times Channel’s Carrier at War with Tom Brokaw ? NYTV has two words for it: “Studly Presidential.” Bill Pullman … George W. Bush … Brokaw. Tonight on The News with Brian Williams , Mr. Williams continues his long march to take over Mr. Brokaw’s NBC News anchor slot in late 2004. [CNBC, 15, 10 p.m.]