Newsmaker shows transformed by tragedy

Oct 29, 2001  •  Post A Comment

And on the seventh day, our elected and self-proclaimed leaders talk.
Since Sept. 11, viewers have flocked to the Sunday newsmaker programs showcasing the Beltway VIPs.
For example, on Sept. 16, according to Nielsen Media Research data, a record number of viewers tuned in to see Vice President Dick Cheney on “Meet the Press With Tim Russert.” Some 9 million people watched the show when it was broadcast on NBC, and about 6 million watched a replay on MSNBC. The aggregate Sept. 16 audience would put “Meet” in the Top 25 prime-time shows in most weeks this season.
While Mr. Russert is clearly the titan of Sunday morning talk, the month after the terrorist attacks saw viewership for all six national Sunday newsmaker shows grow, whether comparing their viewership to the year before, when it seemed we might never find closure to the presidential election, or to the month before Sept. 11, when it seemed we might never hear the end of the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy case.
“People are watching,” said Virginia Moseley, executive producer of ABC’s “This Week.”
In the four weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, viewership of NBC’s “Meet the Press” is up 76 percent from the four Sundays before Sept. 11 and up 73 percent from the comparable weeks in 2000.
CBS’s “Face the Nation” is up 49 percent compared with the previous month and up 56 percent compared with a year earlier.
Similarly, ABC’s “This Week” is up 44 percent for the month and 54 percent for the year.
“Fox News Sunday” trails far behind those shows, but even it is up slightly.
On cable, CNN’s “Late Edition” has increased its viewership an astonishing 284 percent from a year ago, proving the adage that the cable news outlets shine during a crisis.
Off-camera, there have been significant shifts in dynamics for the newsmaker shows. Gone are the Clinton-era rotation system (Cabinet members largely knew which week they would be doing Sunday duty, and they knew on which show they were most likely to field questions) and the reluctance of key House and Senate members to appear with their political opposites.
For example, it wasn’t all that long ago that House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, insisted that unless he could be guaranteed the final word, he would not share a segment with Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on “Face the Nation.” Host Bob Schieffer withdrew his invitation. “I haven’t invited him to be back on,” the CBS newsman said. “There have been other people who have been very snickety, but I think you’re seeing a relaxation of that.”
And so, on the Sunday after the terrorist attack, when regular viewers would have been struck by the absence of signature musical bumpers, as well as the absence of commercials, on “Fox News Sunday,” the politically aware were more struck by the appearance of Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt in the same segment.
The bipartisanship peaked Sept. 23 when Mr. Russert booked Sen. Daschle, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., Rep. Hastert and Rep. Gephardt in one segment. “That’s historic,” Mr. Russert said. “People were amazed when Hastert said, `We finally spent time together and got to know each other.”’
Now, more than ever, if you’re No. 2-or want to be-you try harder to get the biggest newsmaker, or the most newspaper hits out of your turn at bat with the newsmaker making the most rounds, on any given Sunday.
Secretary of State Colin Powell made the newsmaker rounds Sept. 23, but “Fox News Sunday” executive producer Marty Ryan, who is also Fox News’ director of political programming, was very pleased with the newspaper “pickups” for his show.
Mr. Schieffer and “Face the Nation” picked up steam this year, regularly coming in ahead of “This Week” over the summer and sometimes edging the ABC show since the start of the NFL season, which can wreak havoc on “Face” ratings in the Mountain and Pacific time zones but which doesn’t impact ABC’s Sunday lineups.
“We’re pretty close to overtaking them,” said Mr. Schieffer, whose show has expanded to an hour several times since the terrorist attacks. The hour format-“It’s just a bigger sack to put things in,” Mr. Schieffer said-makes it easier to adjust to the dramatic developments.
So does originating live and after the other four shows.
While its competitors talked as if war were about to break out on Oct. 7, only CNN’s “Late Edition” was live when word came that the U.S. military was bombing Afghanistan. “That was a pretty amazing moment,” said Lucy Spiegel, the weekend news executive who oversees “Late Edition.” The show expanded from two to three hours after the attack, a flexibility that preserves the chance for viewers to quiz some newsmakers. Though it’s always a risk to take viewer questions live, “There are very few flip questions,” Ms. Spiegel said.
“In times of war, we have to have more conversations than confrontations,” said Mr. Russert, who interviewed the Taliban’s deputy ambassador to Pakistan, Sohail Shaheen, in a compelling segment on Oct. 14. That interview fell into the category of understanding the enemy: “When you put a spotlight on the cockroaches, they run,” said Mr. Russert, who has tried to keep his inner bulldog on a leash since Sept. 11. “In times of war, I do think we have to modulate our tone.”
That sort of talk will win fans among affiliates, many of whom have been concerned with keeping network news coverage on that fine line between thorough and alarmist, said Jack Sander, executive vice president of media operations for Belo and chairman of the NBC affiliates.
“I think most stations feel a very big responsibility and obligation to support the network programs as they deal with difficult and sensitive issues,” Mr. Sanders said. “We don’t want to go overboard, but we must be accurate and contemporary on these topics. I do think folks want information, not overkill, and want to get on with their lives and find positives in the world and life.”#