In Depth

The 10 Most Powerful in TV News

By Elizabeth Jensen

It’s time again to name NewsPro’s 10 Most Powerful in TV News. This year there’s an unseen puppeteer pulling the strings behind the scenes. Call him (or her) Moneybags. Or Wall-E Street. Or Quarterly Profit Mistress. By any name, the economy rightfully belongs at the top of the list as the most powerful force that has been reshaping the TV news business in the past year.

Two of the Big 3 network news divisions have announced large layoffs in recent weeks, as corporate masters try to keep the profit margins up. The third is expected to soon find itself with a new owner, as a result of the Wall Street-driven push to media consolidation.

Local newscasts have disappeared in some cases; in others, stations are adding newscasts but not personnel, and everyone is working longer hours for less pay, with fewer resources. Local television ad revenue fell 22 percent in 2009, triple the decline of the year before, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Local late news ratings also dropped, as did local stations’ early evening news and morning news ratings. Collectively, the network newscasts also continued to decline — down 2.5 percent in 2009 for the Big 3, PEJ reports, to an average 22.3 million viewers each night. Ditto for the network morning shows, down 2.4 percent to an average 12.8 million people.

Both numbers dwarf cable news’ collective numbers, but the trend is in cable’s favor. PEJ reports that median prime-time viewership for the three main cable news channels grew 7 percent in 2009 to 3.88 million, and daytime rose 16 percent, to 2.16 million. Add in the growth in online news usage, and it’s clear where this business is headed.

1. Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO, Fox News, and chairman of the Fox Television Stations Group

Last year, there were plenty of pundits willing to speculate that Fox News was going to have a hard time thriving in a world where Barack Obama was president and a new spirit of bipartisanship had arrived. But that feel-good moment was fleeting as partisanship is more intense than ever. And Fox? It just had a record year.

The network ended 2009 with an average 2.2 million total viewers in prime time, up 7 percent year-to-year, and a total day average of 1.2 million, up 13 percent, which was the most total viewers in its 13 years on the air. Results were equally strong in the key demographics, which was good news for parent News Corp. Analysts estimate that the unit will bring in $700 million in operating profit this fiscal year, according to The New York Times.

While opinion shows such as “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Hannity” and “Glenn Beck” certainly topped the ratings, the network’s straight news shows also performed, as Bret Baier settled into Brit Hume’s old slot, and Shepard Smith kept chugging along.

Meanwhile, Ailes and his team also seem to be making progress with the thorny Fox Business Network. The arrival of John Stossel from ABC’s “20/20” is drawing viewers on Thursday nights. And there has been a string of big-name (for the business news world) hires, including CNBC’s Charlie Gasparino and Gerri Willis, formerly CNN’s personal finance editor. None of them likely came cheap, but the moves may help finally put the network on the ratings map.

2. Steve Capus, president, NBC News

Phil Griffin, president, MSNBC

Mark Hoffman, president, CNBC

NBC News continues to roll along, its “Today” show and “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” easily maintaining first place in their respective time periods. At a time when the collective network evening newscasts continue to lose ground, “Nightly News” was the only one of the Big 3 to add viewers in 2009. Likewise, CNBC has remained steady.

MSNBC, meanwhile, moved into second place in 2009. That wasn’t because of its own gains — the prime-time lineup actually dropped 3 percent year-to-year in its key 25-54 demographic with an average viewership half that of Fox News — but because CNN dropped more. And the strength at the network is concentrated almost entirely in prime time. Its daytime lineup went through yet another shakeup at the beginning of year, away from opinion and back to straight news. Still, the network has NBC News as the financial cushion that ABC and CBS don’t have.

There are other chinks in the armor, including “Meet the Press,” which appears vulnerable under David Gregory after years of dominance with the late Tim Russert at the helm. And a major unknown remains just a regulatory-approval away, when Comcast gets the go-ahead from Washington to close on its deal to take control of NBC Universal.

So the power at NBC News this year may lie with Comcast COO Steve Burke. Then again, with NBC’s serious prime-time woes and a money-losing Winter Olympics behind it, NBC News — which had its major cutbacks two years ago unlike ABC and CBS — is one of the few areas of the company that he doesn’t need to worry about for the moment.

3. Jim Walton, president, CNN Worldwide

Jon Klein, president, CNN/U.S.

Ken Jautz, executive vice president, CNN Worldwide, responsible for HLN

CNN actually had more viewers in 2009 than in 2006 or 2007 (although not the election year of 2008). Sister network HLN’s prime-time ratings jumped 9 percent for the year to its best numbers ever. The company’s profits grew by double digits, to the highest level in its history, even as it added employees and made significant investments — in programming for CNNInternational and HLN, a redesigned, a popular iPhone app, and on the main domestic network with the launch of Sunday’s “State of the Union.” The investment has continued this year, with John King taking over the 7 p.m. slot kicking off prime time. CNN by far tops MSNBC and Fox News in digital usage.

So why does it feel as though the place is falling apart? Perhaps because one of those major investments was for a new daily CNNInternational show for the brand’s best-known worldwide on-air personality, Christiane Amanpour, who less than a year into her new show is bolting for ABC News’ “This Week.” Or because even in the first quarter, when Anderson Cooper, one of its highest profile stars, turned in what is sure to be award-winning work from the scene of the Haitian earthquake, his 10 p.m. show dropped 42 percent in viewers year to year, and often finished behind MSNBC repeats. CNN in 2009 finished in third place in the prime-time ratings. In the 25-54 demographic, it was down 9 percent from 2008. That leaves a lot riding on John King’s new 7 p.m. show.

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

CBS Sports pulled in the largest audience in television history with its Super Bowl XLIV coverage, its 106.5 million viewers dethroning the 1983 final episode of “M*A*S*H.” That accomplishment didn’t distract McManus from keeping a firm hand on CBS News, however. The division continued to have another stable year; although its gains were few, it didn’t lose much ground, either.

“CBS Evening News” remains in third place, as does “The Early Show.” But “60 Minutes” remains the highest-ranking news broadcast; “CBS Sunday Morning” has been in first place for 63 consecutive weeks; and “48 Hours” is a very reliable contributor of revenue to the bottom line.

There have only been a couple rounds of the once-regular rumors that “Evening News” anchor Katie Couric was ready to bolt when her contract expires next year. Layoffs of about 100 in the winter were dwarfed by those of ABC.

Also on Sunday mornings, McManus’ success a few years back in convincing Bob Schieffer not to retire has paid off. “Face the Nation” on Sundays has moved solidly into second place in viewers and at times challenges or beats NBC’s “Meet the Press” in key demographics.

Outsiders are taking note, as well. CBS News was the only one of the three broadcast networks to take home a duPont Award this year, and in fact it took home two. One was for the already much-honored Couric interview of Sarah Palin. The other was for a pet project of McManus, the divisionwide “Children of the Recession,” which revived the prestigious “CBS Reports” mantle to examine the impact of the economic crisis on children.

5. Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”

The real news/faux news divide keeps getting narrower as the years go on, and Jon Stewart continues to be the bridge-builder at “The Daily Show.” On every news story of significance, Stewart is right there with a video compilation or wry commentary, puncturing balloons.

His decision in February to engage with his sometimes nemesis Bill O’Reilly on the latter’s Fox News Channel show was one of his occasional seemingly calculated ventures into the real-world realm. He’s done it in the past — his 2004 appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire” in which he attacked the hosts as “partisan hacks” comes to mind — but this foray felt different. O’Reilly was on “The Daily Show” following President Obama’s election, but Stewart last appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” in 2004. This two-parter — with an unedited version of the entire exchange posted on the Web — felt like a meeting of equals.

Stewart’s appeal to a younger audience means he finds much of his audience not on TV but on the Internet the next morning. Will the absence of “The Daily Show” from Hulu hurt it, following Viacom’s decision to pull its programs from the platform? More likely it will be the other way around. Stewart’s influence in the news universe seems only on the upswing.

6. David Westin, president, ABC News

Westin has done a yeoman’s job trying to spin the recent massive cutbacks in his division — some 300 to 400 of the staff of 1,500 — into a bold voluntary move to a brighter digital future. Will there be a payoff down the road? We won’t know for some time and he could very well be right. But for the near future, it’s hard not to be unsettled by the sheer size of the cuts and the near certain shaking-out period to come, as the remaining staff attempts to recalibrate their working routines to reflect the absence of what could be nearly 25 percent of their colleagues.

It’s been a year of transition for ABC News, and not all of it successful. Diane Sawyer has settled in to “World News Tonight” after the retirement of Charlie Gibson, and Westin was able to persuade a reluctant George Stephanopoulos to take her “Good Morning America” role, where he appears to be settling in nicely. But ratings for both shows are down from a year earlier. Stephanopoulos’ old anchor chair at “This Week” remained empty for months, leaving the show, which was pulling in its highest numbers in years and challenging NBC for top place, adrift with a rotating cast of substitutes. That situation has been remedied now with the arrival of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, but she doesn’t start until August.  “Nightline” has proved durable at a time of flux in late night. 

Meanwhile, two seconds of misused video in a recent report about acceleration problems in Toyota cars — a story that ABC had been out front on — have been an embarrassing distraction for the division.

7. Bill O’Reilly, host of “The O’Reilly Factor,” Fox News Channel

Glenn Beck, host of “Glenn Beck,” Fox News Channel

The two Fox News hosts — cerebral Bill O’Reilly and hotheaded Glenn Beck — are nothing alike, but the pair’s “Bold & Fresh Tour,” the two on stagedebating the issues, just sold out five shows across the country this winter (the Virginia one was postponed until May because of weather.)
Together, along with Sean Hannity, they have powered Fox News to its record year. O’Reilly remains on top, with an average 3.6 million viewers each night. Even at 5 p.m., Beck is in second with 2.8 million viewers, just ahead of Hannity at 9 p.m.

Beck’s quick rise — he only joined the network in January 2009 — hasn’t been all good for Fox. When he called President Obama a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” it cost him advertisers. His role outside the network, as a driving force in the building Tea Party movement, doesn’t sit well with all of his colleagues, according to reports.

At the same time, some think O’Reilly has mellowed. He’s never parroted the Republican talking points, but at a time when the right is ratcheting up the inflamed rhetoric he’s been calling for more measured debate. Even Jon Stewart took note, telling the host when he appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” in February, “You’ve become in some ways the voice of sanity here, which, as I said, is like being the thinnest kid at fat camp.”

8. Barbara Walters and the women of “The View”

ABC’s daytime talk show “The View” represents a growing phenomenon in TV news. Like “TMZ,” another such hybrid, it bills itself as entertainment but increasingly has a news agenda that others are taking note of. “The View” hasn’t had the news home run that “TMZ” did when it broke the story of Michael Jackson’s death, but its roundtable talk is becoming increasingly political, a far cry from the fashion, celebrity and relationship issues that once dominated the show, now in its 13th year.

To look at the listings, it would appear that nothing has changed. Justin Bieber! Paula Deen! Danielle Steel! But as the L.A. Times noted, the president’s health care bill has been on the agenda all winter. The hosts — Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Sherri Shepherd — have debated gay marriage, the Sept. 11 terrorist trials and the president’s State of the Union address. Evan Bayh skipped the traditional Sunday talk shows and went to “The View” to explain why he plans to leave the Senate — and got a grilling. Democratic strategist Kiki McLean told the L.A. Times that the show is a factor in campaign strategic planning.

This year, the show is drawing nearly 4 million viewers on average. Next year, who knows? ABC is reportedly considering moving it to the afternoon—either on ABC stations or by converting it to a syndicated show — to take advantage of the void that will be created when Oprah Winfrey ends her popular talk show in September 2011.

9. N.S. Bienstock Agency

Richard Leibner and his wife Carole Cooper, the powers behind Bienstock, are survivors, proving adept at redirecting some of their agent business into cable as network and local broadcasts cut back.

Where once Dan Rather topped their roster, now it’s the triumvirate of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Anderson Cooper. HLN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell has proved able to run the distance. Paula Zahn at Discovery Investigation is bringing in encouraging numbers in her first months on the network-in-transition.

In broadcast, they represent seven of the “60 Minutes” crowd: Executive Producer Jeff Fager; this year’s RTDNA Paul White Award winner Steve Kroft; Bob Simon; Lara Logan; commentator Andy Rooney; one of the newest members of the team, Byron Pitts; and CNN’s Cooper, an occasional contributor.

At ABC News, they represent the newest member of the “Good Morning America” team, Juju Chang, as well as co-host Robin Roberts and Executive Producer Jim Murphy. And “20/20” Executive Producer David Sloan is with them, as well.

This year, the firm has negotiated a high-profile deal at PBS, where Alison Stewart, who has a cult following from her days at MTV, MSNBC and NPR, will begin co-hosting a new Friday night prime-time show, “Need to Know,” in May.

10. Christiane Amanpour, ABC News

Candy Crowley, CNN

Lesley Stahl broke the gender barrier on the Sunday political talk shows when she moderated “Face the Nation” on CBS from 1983-91; Cokie Roberts served as co-anchor with Sam Donaldson of ABC’s “This Week” from 1996-2002; and Gwen Ifill leads PBS’ Friday night “Washington Week,” but by and large, the weekend shows from Washington have been a white male bastion. Now, the gender balance is shifting radically.

At CNN, long-toiling senior political correspondent Candy Crowley was a surprise pick to fill her network’s “State of the Union” host chair, left vacant when John King decamped for a daily prime-time show. Crowley, who retains her reporting post and plans to hit the campaign trail when it’s time, has said she wants to lighten up the genre, but otherwise the show is going to evolve as she goes.

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, meanwhile, is leaving the network where she has worked for essentially her entire career for the host chair at ABC’s “This Week.” Amanpour, perhaps the best-known foreign correspondent in the world, is expected to bring a new dynamic to the Sunday show: less domestic politics and more international news and reports from overseas on occasion. She’s perhaps the biggest wild card in the new lineup. She’s the opposite of previous host George Stephanopoulos, a Washington insider who once worked in President Bill Clinton’s administration (as did Amanpour’s husband Jamie Rubin.)

Both Crowley and Amanpour are plunging into a wide-open field ratings-wise. NBC’s long dominant “Meet the Press” has slipped, giving all the competitors a chance to shake things up.