It is time for the annual drumroll, tah-dah and to-do as TelevisionWeek unveils its list of the 10 Most Powerful People in TV News.
With the roster comes the annual asterisk signifying that while it is painstakingly assembled, the selection and ranking process is both earnest and admittedly unscientific.
To extensive research, add backstage drama and gossip that had us tinkering and rethinking until past deadline last week, thanks to a barrage of headlines about CBS News and Katie Couric and a dribble-down-the-chin-juicy New York Times Magazine profile of MSNBC’s tin-eared Chris Matthews, who has everyone talking about him—and not in a good way. You’ll see that we have taken advantage of the political Zeitgeist to add a little more shock value than usual at the end. While most of the news players listed here are very familiar, it’s some of their key players who are new to our spotlight.
1. Steve Capus
Title: NBC News president
Tenure: 2½ years
Rank last year: 2
Why he was chosen: The NBC News ship, which last year seemed to have sprung a few worrisome leaks, is once again sailing upright and steady as she used to go. “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” is edging out ABC’s “World News With Charles Gibson” with more regularity. The “Today” show is once again making it look easy to be No. 1, no longer letting ABC’s “Good Morning America” see it sweat as it did during close weeks last year when “Today” would find ways to eliminate some of its more vulnerable segments from the Nielsen ratings’ scrutiny. During the first quarter of this year, “Today” led by 1.2 million viewers. MSNBC.com is the leading television news organization Web site. Perhaps most tantalizing is the success NBC News has had in this long, dramatic and lucrative political season by making MSNBC “The Place for Politics.” The cable channel may finally have found its voice—brash and brass ballsy at day’s end—and a formula that makes it a valuable platform for (and not just a way of amortizing expenses of) NBC News.
Invaluable asset: His fellow MSNBC alumnus, Phil Griffin, the NBC News senior VP in charge of both “Today” and MSNBC. Mr. Griffin has been given a lot of (tight) rope with MSNBC, whose prime-time lineup tied CNN in the key news demo of 25- to 54-year-olds in March. Even when someone at MSNBC has to apologize, the incident gets a lot of ink and the names are spelled correctly. It’s not the only recent strategy that reads like a page out of a Fox News playbook—even if the political points of view are poles apart.
Nitpicking: Chatty Kathie Lee Gifford for “Today”? Does this portend a spinoff for the fourth hour? Shouldn’t it? Sunday’s New York Times Magazine profile of Chris Matthews reveals a lot of sharp elbows, but makes clear that the man who once was a fresh face now is his own worst enemy.
2. Roger Ailes
Titles: Chairman and CEO of Fox News, Fox Business Network, Fox Television Station Group
Tenure: Launched Fox News Channel in 1996
Rank last year: 1.
Why he was chosen: Fox News Channel is making money, money, money by racking up rating$, rating$, rating$ day in, day out, year after year. The network created in his image is consistently among the 10 most-watched channels in the cable world (second-place CNN is in the low 20s and third-place MSNBC seldom even makes the Top 30). However, FNC has been oddly low-profile and sotto voce in the most portentous political year in memory despite the presence of Karl Rove in Fox News’ pundit pack.
Invaluable asset: His fierce determination to succeed makes folks reluctant to write off the Fox Business Network, which did not come out of the box six months ago showing any of the razzle-dazzle Fox News Channel displayed from the get-go. The wobbly financial sector and economy haven’t helped the channel, which was conceived as “business-friendly.” Still, Mr. Ailes and his team of senior VPs Kevin Magee and Neil Cavuto have not been able to take advantage of the Dow Jones and Co. brands News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch purchased for $6.5 billion last year.
Nitpicking: The prime-time lineup, while as popular as ever—“The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity & Colmes” still top the cable news ratings—seems less than potent politically this season. Except for veteran Shepard Smith, there is no next-generation breakthough talent in the Fox stable.
3. David Westin
Title: ABC News president
Tenure: 11 years
Rank last year: 4
Why he was chosen: He’s a survivor—the longest-tenured current TV news organization leader by far. He has finally established a line of succession. There’s an atmosphere of competitive confidence and stability. While “Good Morning America” and “World News” may not have the sense of momentum they had last year, they are vigorous and competitive. The revived “Nightline,” the international aspirations in which Mr. Westin has become an adroit player/booker and the growth of “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” into a consistent silver medalist in the Sunday newsmaker show competition lends ABC News a comforting air of tradition even as it digs for the pot of gold at the end of the digital rainbow that teases all news organizations.
Invaluable asset: Dave Davis, the executive VP overseeing ABC News programs, has more than lived up to his reputation as a smart, decisive executive with much-needed people skills. Add in his visibility and accessibility and you’ve got a big morale boost.
Nitpicking: Just once, could ABC hire a male correspondent who doesn’t look like a clone of Mr. Westin?
4. Tim Russert
Titles: Managing editor/moderator of “Meet the Press” and senior VP/Washington bureau chief for NBC News
Tenure: Since 1991
Rank last year: 5
Why he was chosen: If it’s an election year, it must be a particularly good one for Mr. Russert, for whom “term limits” is an alien concept. When his current 10-year contract expires in 2012, he will have been the moderator of “Meet the Press” for 21 years. He’s been the “Meet” man for more than a quarter of the 60 years that make the show the longest-running program in TV history and a veritable institution in the political capitol of the free world. His “Meet the Press” audience, often more than 4 million viewers strong before the show is even made available online, enjoys a 40% ratings lead over the closest competition, ABC’s “This Week.” It could be argued that he’s more powerful than many higher-ranked news executives.
Invaluable asset: The political-TV equivalent of “Perry Mason” moments enabled by the dogged research for which Mr. Russert and his executive producer Betsy Fischer are justly famous.
Nitpicking: Mr. Russert’s loyalty to people used to making familiar points in a familiar way can sometimes make his roundtables seem fusty, especially in a presidential campaign year like this when a woman and an African American man have changed the political landscape and the race and gender conversations forever.
5. Jim Walton/Jon Klein
Titles: CNN Worldwide president and CNN/U.S. president, respectively
Tenure: 5 years and 3½ years, respectively
Rank last year: 8
Why they were chosen: CNN/U.S. has revitalized itself by focusing on politics. Prime-time ratings, revenue, CNN.com traffic and morale are up. There will be the big test of avoiding precipitous ratings drops in between the election and the next big story, but for now, CNN can bask in the glow of having topped Fox News in the all-important news demographic of 25- to 54-year-old viewers in February for the first time in six years.
CNN’s invaluable assets: The addiction to politics of Senior VP and Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman and political director Sam Feist is the wind beneath CNN’s politically corrected ratings wings these days.
Nitpicking: Book-ending Larry King with the youthful and vital Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper only makes his increasing weaknesses more glaring. Yes, it’s CNN’s most-watched program, but “Larry King Live” also means there is no compatible audience flow, only prime-time whiplash for viewers. Lou Dobbs’ angry and autocratic persona also seems increasingly out of synch with what Mr. Klein says is working for CNN—passionate middle-of-the-roadness—but no one seems able or willing to temper Mr. Dobbs. “American Morning” also represents an audience challenge.
6. Keith Olbermann
Title: Host of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann”
Tenure: Five years
Rank last year: 6
Why he was chosen: Two decades into his career, he’s become an overnight success as talk TV’s first break-out liberal voice. With about 1 million viewers per night, he is MSNBC’s Goliath and so he can gleefully play David to Bill O’Reilly’s Goliath.
Invaluable asset: After blithely burning oh, so many career bridges, Mr. Olbermann seems inclined not to screw up this opportunity, which is arguably his best ever, especially since it comes with fun assignments and exposure on NBC Sports’ Sunday Night Football bench.
Nitpicking: He remains an acquired taste.
7. Bill O’Reilly
Title: Host of “The O’Reilly Factor”
Tenure: 12 years
Rank last year: none
Why he was chosen: He’s still the ratings king of the cable news world, easily bringing more than 2 million viewers into the Fox tent at the beginning of each weeknight and giving Fox a distinct advantage in reach over its competitors. If Mr. O’Reilly writes a book, it effectively debuts as a best seller.
Invaluable asset: He can say the most outrageous—and often non-doctrinaire—things with an almost straight face.
Nitpicking: His bully-boy persona doesn’t seem to frighten so many people anymore. Indeed, it can be argued his heckling has helped MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. “The Factor” often seems more interested in reading body language than in the race for the White House.
8. Sean McManus
Titles: President of CBS News and CBS Sports
Tenure: 2½ years and 12 years, respectively
Rank last year: 7
Why he was chosen: He’s smart. He’s solid. He’s wise to the fun and frightful ways of the rollercoaster of an industry he was born into as the son of ABC Sports legend Jim McKay. His long tenure at CBS Sports made him familiar and reassuring to the CBS affiliates whose support he has needed as he made nitty-gritty moves they might otherwise resist—giving back significant time during “The Early Show” and moving ad spots to create a seamless transition from their local newscasts to the “CBS Evening News.” While the continuing ratings challenges facing the third-place “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric” made unscheduled news last week, Mr. McManus is very good at focusing on what has been accomplished and being sanguine about what hasn’t. He gambled on the volatile Shelley Ross as executive producer of third-place “The Early Show,” then made a quick change six months into her rocky tenure. His decision to assign “Evening News” executive producer Rick Kaplan to temporary double duty on “Early” was rewarded with a quick ratings lift. He’s got two of the sturdiest properties in TV news: “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours.” And he has convinced another institution, Bob Schieffer, to postpone his retirement from “Face the Nation.”
Invaluable asset: His long relationship with CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves. Mr. McManus has been a trusted member of the team. And he knows all that entails, even the stuff that’s not always pretty or fun.
Nitpicking: CBS News is the way last network to get a debate (still unconfirmed at press time). After all the Democratic candidates’ much-watched back-and-forths, the question must be asked: “What’s the diff?”
9. N.S. Bienstock
Tenure: More than three decades
Rank last year: 9
Why it was chosen: Prime time in cable news would look very different if it weren’t for clients represented by the agency headed by husband-and-wife team Richard Leibner and Carole Cooper, which has different clients holding down an hour from 5 p.m. through midnight on weeknight all-news cable network lineups: Bill O’Reilly at Fox; Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper at CNN; and Chris Matthews, David Gregory and Dan Abrams at MSNBC. MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell was added to the Bienstock stable when agent Rick Ramage joined the diverse agency late last year.
Invaluable asset: A long, star-studded history as well as a focus on the road ahead, whether it’s in hard news, soft news, documentary or reality programming.
Nitpicking: Bienstock and its clients are confronting the same realities as everyone else in an industry that is breeding smaller stars who will inevitably get smaller paychecks.
10. Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart
Titles: Comedians who have affected the country’s political dialogue
Last year’s rank: Mr. Stewart 10; Ms. Poehler and Mr. Colbert, none
Why they were chosen: “Saturday Night Live’s” Amy Poehler touched a national nerve with her portrayal of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. During a debate with her opponent Sen. Barack Obama, the real Ms. Clinton even cited the faux Sen. Clinton’s gripe that she was being manhandled by the press, which put on kid gloves for Sen. Obama. Mr. Stewart was muted by the writers strike and then his stint as host of a kiss-and-make-up Oscars ceremony was made possible by the settling of the writers strike. But there are months to go in one of the most exciting contests in presidential campaign history and his consistent ability to do unto politics and politicians and the real journalists who cover them—Google “Tucker Carlson” and “Chris Matthews” and “Jon Stewart” and reminisce amongst yourselves—is why this fake journalist is a veteran on this list of real journalists. And his Comedy Central spawn, Mr. Colbert, recently won a Peabody Award for his “Victor/Victoria”-like turn as a satirist playing a fake cable news icon who defines over the top.
Invaluable assets: They get it.
Nitpicking: We don’t see enough of them.