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TV News' 10 Most Powerful

Key Executives Must Steer Media Through Economic Turmoil

It’s time again for TelevisionWeek’s list of the 10 Most Powerful in TV News.

This year’s report card comes at an awkward time: Election-year performances can’t be ignored, and yet they already seem a distant memory, as the industry is roiled by the same economic turmoil as the rest of the nation.

While there are plenty of new characters heating up the airwaves, this year we’ve opted for executives over on-air talent for the list; they are the ones trying to navigate the downturn in advertising revenues, anticipate where and how fickle viewers want to get their news, and find the programming and personalities that appeal to the national zeitgeist.

Before we jump in, let’s conduct a quick review. The criteria? It’s highly subjective. Ratings count, and so do revenues (not that anyone is freely handing out those numbers, but there are plenty of whispers). So does the ability to instill fear in competitors or to spark a national conversation no matter how inane (the collective Wikipedia minds define power as “the measure of an entity’s ability to control the environment around itself, including the behavior of other entities”). And it’s worth noting that power can be used for ill as well as good, as Jon Stewart has been reminding CNBC executives.

1. NBC News Team
Jeff Zucker, president and chief executive officer, NBC Universal
Steve Capus, president, NBC News
Phil Griffin, president, MSNBC
Mark Hoffman, president, CNBC

It’s increasingly impossible to separate the parts from the whole at NBC News, so the top spot this year goes to the team led by Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal.

With the NBC primetime schedule struggling and pilot needs curtailed by the move of late-night talk show host Jay Leno to 10 p.m., it’s no wonder that Mr. Zucker, a former “Today” show executive producer, would take a hands-on interest in NBC News: It’s much more fun when strategies are having success.

Under his uber-direction, the news parts of the empire seem to be sorting themselves out after years of ill-defined boundaries.

The company adroitly recovered from the untimely death of Tim Russert, which was both a personal tragedy for his colleagues and a potentially business-threatening blow in an election year during which he was expected to star.

MSNBC has finally gained its own identity, after taking the full plunge into partisan primetime. Keith Olbermann’s championing of Rachel Maddow paid off, giving the network a fresh if now-verging-on-overexposed voice. “Morning Joe” now regularly bests CNN’s “American Morning.”
Meanwhile, the broadcast side of NBC News hums along. Brian Williams’ “NBC Nightly News” has fended off the ABC News challenge and sits comfortably in first place, with a solid million-viewer lead over ABC’s “World News” in the March sweeps. “Today” keeps steamrollering on: At the end of March it marked its 55th consecutive quarter—more than 13 years—as the top-rated morning show.

All this is not to say there aren’t some worrying signs on the horizon. Tom Brokaw filled in ably on “Meet the Press” after Mr. Russert’s death in June, but permanent replacement David Gregory appears vulnerable, and White House correspondent Chuck Todd is quietly getting queued up, just in case. Attempts to integrate reporters from the Weather Channel—NBC’s newest acquisition—into “Nightly News” are sometimes just jarring. CNBC, meanwhile, undeniably continues to rake in the money, but the combination of Jim Cramer’s antics and the departures of Senior VP Jonathan Wald and high-energy “Fast Money” host Dylan Ratigan have many wondering if the place is about to go off the rails.

2. Roger Ailes,
chairman and CEO, Fox News Channel, and chairman, Fox Television Stations Group

What a difference a few months make. Post-election, perhaps the temptation would have been to put Fox behind CNN, what with the latter’s strong political year. But Fox has, quite predictably, roared back. The naysayers who thought FNC wouldn’t fare well in an Obama world obviously aren’t old enough to remember just how much the network and its viewers reveled in every Bill Clinton misstep.

Last year, the Fox lineup was as dependable as ever, if feeling a bit predictable. But just a few tweaks—Alan Colmes’ departure, Bret Baier in for Brit Hume—have livened things up without upsetting the essential formula. Still to play out is a potentially bigger change, as John Moody, who has overseen Fox News’ editorial content for more than a decade, moves up to a corporate post and is replaced by Michael Clemente, recently in from ABC News.

And then there is the phenomenon that is Glenn Beck. After a decent but far from breakout run on CNN’s HLN, Mr. Beck’s January move to Fox has turned out to be a perfect match of the times and the network; his apocalyptic foaming is drawing in the crowds even at the unlikely hour of 5 p.m., and the show is sometimes finishing second only to the mighty Bill O’Reilly. Can Mr. Beck sustain the intensity, or at this time next year will he prove to be a Lou Dobbs-ian one-issue wonder? Gawker throws around words like “unhinged” and “mental breakdown” to describe Mr. Beck’s recent performances, but if there’s anyone who can manage on-the-edge personalities, it’s Mr. Ailes. Now if he could only figure out what to do with Fox Business Network.

3. CNN Team
Jim Walton, president, CNN Worldwide
Jon Klein, president, CNN/U.S.
Ken Jautz, executive VP, CNN Worldwide, responsible for HLN

Can a network be classified as bipolar? Despite the overstuffed pundit panels and Wolf Blitzer’s “best political team on television” tic, CNN’s election coverage was singled out for a Peabody Award and boosted the network to its best year ever in 2008; likewise for CNN HLN (formerly Headline News) and CNN.com. If only the flagship network had been able to entice those viewers to stick around.

The network’s March numbers were still slightly ahead of last year, so CNN is seeing some benefit from the pre-election tune-in. But competitively, CNN’s primetime standing has plummeted as Fox and MSNBC have seen their numbers surge. It frequently finishes fourth in key demos in some timeslots, the only consolation being that one of those it’s losing to is HLN.

CNN argues that it’s the only pure-play hard-news network, and shouldn’t be compared to Fox and MSNBC with their delineated politics in primetime. That might resonate more if only Mr. Klein didn’t undercut the argument by promptly answering “Roger Ailes” when asked at a recent forum to name the “single most important problem” facing his network.

While the primetime lineup still suffers from an identity crisis, there are signs of hope elsewhere on the schedule, including John King’s new Sunday morning show, which has had a promising debut. Meanwhile, HLN is stronger than ever, and any pain of seeing former HLN-er Glenn Beck break out on Fox has been ameliorated by the surprising success that his replacement, Jane Velez-Mitchell, has shown in his slot.

4. David Westin,
president, ABC News

With Mr. Westin’s leadership, ABC navigated its way through a successful election year, piling on the debates and pulling in the viewers on Election Night, when it counted.

The post-election decompression seems to have taken its toll, however: Charles Gibson’s “World News” is still a solid No. 2 but appears to have lost some momentum.

Meanwhile, Diane Sawyer’s contract at “Good Morning America” is due for renewal, which has sparked the usual speculation about whether she wants a change.

Elsewhere on the schedule, ABC News is coming on strong. George Stephanopoulos’ “This Week” has been able to profit from the settling-in period over at “Meet the Press” and just notched the show’s best first-quarter numbers in a decade, as it vies with CBS’ “Face the Nation” for second-place bragging rights.

Most impressive—perhaps not to the Ted Koppel fans, but certainly to the poohbahs at Disney HQ—is “Nightline.” The reinvented show still finds time for hard news—it won a duPont Award this year for its brave reporting from Afghanistan—but its incorporation of lighter chef profiles and stunts such as a recent debate about the existence of Satan have proved the right touch to propel it to a solid No. 2 ranking in late night. The higher numbers should be a potent arguing point when the network’s entertainment executives come calling for the post-local news timeslot this summer, as NBC makes its Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien transition.


5. Sean McManus,
president, CBS News and CBS Sports

What’s more important to a news network than an election year? Four months into 2008, CBS News appeared to be bungling on all fronts. No debates, and confidantes of star anchor Katie Couric were whispering that she most likely would leave after the inauguration, making her a lame duck. But Mr. McManus brought the runaway train under control, and Ms. Couric’s Sarah Palin interviews were an impressive demonstration of restraint, allowing the Republican VP candidate to fumble her way through even the most benign of questions.

Today, “CBS Evening News” is more news- and investigative-focused and regularly turns out quotable interviews with Obama administration officials. There are no longer daily rumors that Ms. Couric plans to bolt.

Unfortunately, none of that has been enough to help the ratings. “CBS Evening News” remains in third place, as does “The Early Show.” But Bob Schieffer’s “Face the Nation” is holding its own in the demos with ABC’s “This Week,” and “CBS Sunday Morning” and “48 Hours” remain reliable moneymakers. As for “60 Minutes,” it seems newly energized and has the ratings to prove it.

6. Jeff Fager,
executive producer, “60 Minutes”

The country is in a serious mood, and “60 Minutes” has ably responded. The Sunday night newsmagazine stalwart has always managed to turn out some journalistic gems even in off years, but this season the program feels as though it has found its footing again after a transition period when the absence of Ed Bradley and Mike Wallace was noticeable.

Steve Kroft landed a one-two punch with the first post-election interviews of both the victorious Obama team and the president-elect himself. Scott Pelley drew out Ben Bernanke in the first TV interview given by a sitting Federal Reserve Board chairman in more than two decades.

Katie Couric wrenched away hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger, the feel-good get of the year, from her former “Today” colleagues. Anderson Cooper donned a bathing suit to swim with Olympian Michael Phelps and ventured to the front lines of Mexico’s deadly drug wars.

Viewers have noticed, and the program has been in the Nielsen Top 10 for the week more often than not, averaging nearly 15 million weekly viewers season-to-date, 11% ahead of last year.

7. Comedy Central Team
Jon Stewart, host, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”
Stephen Colbert, host, Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report”

In the genre of faux news with real newsmaking impact, “Saturday Night Live’s” Amy Poehler and Tina Fey had their shining moments last year portraying Sen. Hillary Clinton and Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin, and the show is being rewarded with a Peabody Award. But the women are on to primetime, while Jon Stewart remains reliably at his “Daily Show” cable post.

Again and again, he has proven his prowess at cutting through the hyperventilation and hype elsewhere. Some critics of CNBC’s blustering “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer just choose not to watch; Mr. Stewart took the tack that Mr. Cramer and the network needed to be called out for elevating entertainment over responsibility. Mr. Cramer whines about being ambushed when he went on the show to defend himself, but much of the world saw the exchange as yet another of Mr. Stewart’s illuminating deconstructions of the news establishment.

Spinoff correspondent Mr. Colbert, meanwhile, is off to Iraq, ostensibly to entertain the troops, but there’s sure to be some real headlines that follow.

8. Univision

Local news everywhere is in a tailspin, as automotive advertising in particular dries up. Even groups such as Belo that take justifiable pride in their award-winning local investigative and political reporting are feeling the squeeze as their parent companies’ market values plunge.

Anchors who have been longtime fixtures at stations across the country are being cut loose to save their high salaries and replaced with inexperienced and cheaper names.

Univision isn’t immune to the financial pressures of dwindling local ad sales, but its local news continues to thrive in major markets. For the first quarter of the year, its Los Angeles station, KMEX, remained No. 1 nationwide—English- or Spanish-language—in 18-to 49-year-old early local news viewers. Its WXTV in New York was the top station in its market in the same demo, and second nationwide. The company had a strong election year, sponsoring three debates, and has benefited from the

Obama administration’s widening media outreach: The president himself recently recorded a message to the audience watching the “Premio Lo Nuestro” music awards show.

9. N.S. Bienstock

Back in 1980, Richard Leibner was lauded for his role in helping make CBS News’ Dan Rather the $8 million man. Nearly 30 years later, the TV business has undergone radical changes, but Mr. Leibner and his wife, Carole Cooper, the powers behind Bienstock, are still changing with the times, exhibiting a nimbleness and longevity that some of their clients would do well to learn from.

They still represent some of network news’ heavy hitters, including “60 Minutes” man Steve Kroft and his boss Jeff Fager, and established cable stars Bill O’Reilly and Anderson Cooper. But year after year, as new talents rise to the top, Bienstock is right there as well. Fox News breakout Glenn Beck? Check. HLN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell? Check. Bienstock’s flexibility will serve the agency well as it deals with the challenge of the moment: Cutbacks in the local news talent business nationwide.

10. Huffington Post

What’s a blog/aggregator doing on a TV list? It’s an acknowledgment of the blurring of the lines between TV and the Internet. The rival Drudge Report has video links, too, but the Huffington Post’s video page is particularly eye-catching and smartly organized into categories, which makes it easy to navigate to the soundbite du jour.

The site has quickly become a powerful player in the Web video world, giving a major boost to those TV news outlets that know how to package their material into bite-size clips.

But HuffPo also ran into some trouble in February when it had to apologize for linking to a doctored video of Fox News’ John Gibson, raising questions about just what kind of editorial safeguards it had in place.

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