It’s time once again for Electronic Media to ponder the who, what, where, whence and why of power in TV journalism and define the power brokers and power players in TV news.
On Sept. 11 this country witnessed a display of power unlike anything it had ever seen before as hijacked airliners brought down the World Trade Center’s twin towers and ripped into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
Television took us right to the edge of Ground Zero, where journalists of all manner and medium emerged from the choking clouds of dust and debris to become household names.
In front of and behind the scenes, television news seemed to be forever affected.
Or so we thought.
We also thought that irony was dead, that the public’s interest in serious news was reborn and that life would never return to what we’d known as normal.
Seven months later, we’re 31/2 for 4.
Irony is alive and well compensated at CBS, where David Letterman is recovering from psychic wounds he suffered as the instrument Disney used to mug “Nightline.” “Nightline” earned a Peabody Award for being “beleaguered.”
On March 29 “20/20” attracted 12.8 million viewers with Barbara Walters’ report on life in Saudi Arabia. That’s second only to Ms. Walters’ Feb. 1 interview with Celine Dion among all Friday night “20/20s” this season.
Ashleigh Banfield did become a household name-sometimes as the punch line to a joke. She’s once again reporting on scenes and victims of devastation, this time in Israel, but she’s no longer the It Girl of electronic journalism.
The Radio and Television News Directors Association, which canceled the convention that was scheduled to open Sept. 11, gathers through Wednesday in Las Vegas.
Life has returned to normal.
So now, with the dust settled on a tumultuous seven months, let the arguments begin.
1. Roger Ailes
Chairman, Fox News
Success hasn’t mellowed Roger Ailes. Fox News Channel’s distribution is up to 78 million homes (an increase of 20 percent year to year). For two straight quarters, Fox News has beat CNN in total day and in the more glamorous prime-time ratings race and is still developing bench strength. Fox News has four of the five most-watched shows in cable news, and only 40,000 viewers stand between “The Fox Report With Shepard Smith” and CNN’s “Larry King Live,” which is in second place. And still Mr. Ailes does not relent. He’s appealing a court ruling that Paula Zahn had the contractual right to entertain an offer from CNN. He encourages on-air bullying of and sniping at Fox’s competition. He takes lemons (Greta Van Susteren’s ill-timed plastic surgery) and makes lemonade (miles and miles of free ink about where and when the former CNN legal eagle would make her debut on Fox). CNN’s sister publication, People magazine, rubbed salt in CNN’s wounds by putting the postoperative Ms. Van Susteren on its cover. Mr. Ailes knows something his competitors don’t: It’s fun to call your own shots and to force the competition to play by your own rules. Being No. 1 means never having to apologize for hiring Geraldo Rivera as a war correspondent.
Last year’s rank: No. 1
2. Tom Brokaw
Anchor, “NBC Nightly News”
Nobody disputes that Tom Brokaw is at the top of his game and keeps “NBC Nightly News” on top of the evening news ratings race. The only question is how NBC News’ point man since 1983 will define his role when he renegotiates the contract that expires later this year. The options, it seems, are all his. By flagship-anchor standards, his need for money (his current salary is presumed to be $7 million a year) and spotlight seem downright modest. To work or not to work, at least not so predictably: Those seem to be the key questions for Mr. Brokaw, who has three best-selling books under his belt. The guessing game seemed simpler last summer, when Mr. Brokaw, 62, took 10 weeks off to explore the world rather than report on it. Then Sept. 11 changed the world-and Mr. Brokaw’s appreciation for his front-row place in it. If he hops off the anchor merry-go-round, even for a couple of nights a week, the ripple effects for NBC and for the flagship-newscast format could be profound.
Last year’s rank: No. 4
3. Neal Shapiro
President, NBC News
Neal Shapiro has faced almost apocalyptic challenges-war on the home front, anthrax in the newsroom, an advertising famine and Katie Couric’s marathon run for $65 million in contract gold-in his first six months as NBC News president. Now, as he nears his first anniversary, come the real tests: No, not securing the services of Tom Brokaw, but overseeing what feels like a last-gasp attempt to extricate MSNBC from ratings quicksand (it has lost nearly half the viewership it had in fourth-quarter 2001). And not being lulled by the 1.6-million-viewer lead “Today” has over ABC’s “Good Morning America.” If “Today” is the division’s cash cow, it’s in danger of being tipped by a $55,000-a-day anchor who’s going to make tabloid headlines every time she plays hooky, changes hair color, undermines the executive producer she chose or otherwise fritters away the public’s good will. Can Mr. Shapiro or a surrogate save Ms. Couric from herself? That’s what inquiring minds throughout the worlds of television and journalism really want to know.
Last year’s rank: No. 5
4. Andrew Heyward
President, CBS News
The stability and diversity that last year made CBS News President Andrew Heyward’s division the most profitable it had ever been also has made it possible for it to weather the war on terrorism and the advertising crunch with a profit that still can be described as “healthy.” CBS News has become the help desk of Viacom, providing everything from a bespoke evening newscast that suits BET to the production brains and brawn that nimbly crossed news divisional lines without destroying them to create a well-received two-hour network special that would air as “9/11.” At the top of his to do list: making sure “The Early Show” doesn’t lose too much ratings ground in the search for an installation of the successor to Bryant Gumbel, who resigned last week. Long-suffering affiliates may not have loved the fact that “Early” has kept most of them mired in third place, but at least it was an improved third place (viewership is up 8 percent year to year).
Last year’s rank: No. 6
5. Bill O’Reilly
Anchor, “The O’Reilly Factor,” Fox News Channel
Bill O’Reilly rules. And grows. In early May, he’ll annex nationwide radio time to his “No-spin Zone.” Gee, what will he and his listeners talk about for two hours every day? How his Fox News Channel show, which already is averaging 2.1 million viewers a night, will leave CNN’s Larry King, with his average of 1.34 million, in a bigger cloud of dust? With two bully pulpits at his disposal, he can guarantee that every O’Reilly book is a best-seller, that every O’Reilly network special improves on its time slot and that every O’Reilly pit bull peeve of the day becomes a talking point in the national conversation. All this, not to mention that his willingness to cause celebs discomfort will only add to his media magnetism and fuel the off-camera fights between the ladies of “The View” and the No. 1 woman on “Good Morning America” over who gets to sit next to him first. Plus, more FoxNews.com visitors click on “Factor” than any other Fox show. Pass the crown. Mr. O’Reilly is the current king of all media.
Last year’s rank: No. 9
6. Jamie Kellner
Chairman and CEO, TBS
Executive VP, programming, TBS
Executive VP and general manager, CNN/U.S.
During her overhaul of CNN Headline News, CNN veteran Teya Ryan forged a comfortable working relationship with TBS’s top executives, Jamie Kellner and Garth Ancier, the ultimate masters of CNN’s domain. She speaks their language, so nobody figures she’ll lose anything in the translation. Now it’s her turn to work her magic on CNN. After seven months and several millions dollars, AOL Time Warner bosses opened the purse strings and told bright-eyed prince of print Walter Isaacson to go buy CNN som
e star power. The mandate to restore CNN’s star to its historic place in the cable news universe was then handed to Ms. Ryan. Mr. Isaacson is still chairman and CEO of CNN News Group, so he has only left center stage (and EM’s Most Powerful list), not the building.
Last year’s rank: Mr Kellner and Mr. Ancier: No. 3; Ms. Ryan: not ranked.
7. Tim Russert
Moderator, “Meet the Press”; Washington bureau chief, NBC News
Supreme Court justices are appointed for life. Tim Russert this year quietly negotiated himself an Olympic-size guarantee that he’ll be at the helm of “Meet the Press” for at least 12 more years. That’s an eternity in tenure-conscious D.C. and sound-bitten TV. What makes him worth it is his ability to attract more than 4.5 million upscale viewers-and the powerbrokers and policy makers who want to talk to them- each Sunday.
Last year’s rank: No. 7
8. Matt Lauer
Anchor, NBC’s “Today”
We’ve said it before, and we say it again: Matt Lauer is the undersung hero, the all-purpose glue, the crucial element in the equation at top-rated “Today.” He doesn’t want anyone to know anything, but his contract, which presumably pays him $4 million a year, has years to run. This only enhances his image as a guy in it for the long haul. He doesn’t change his hair color every week. He does the show in designer party duds only at Halloween. In other words, he doesn’t force the audience to make a thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote on him every day. If he doesn’t have a Russert-size contract, he should.
Last year’s rank: No. 10
9. Betsy West
Senior VP, prime time, CBS News
Executive producer, “48 Hours,” CBS
Betsy West and Susan Zirinsky led the tireless CBS News team that wrestled some 140 hours of independently shot video down into “9/11,” the CBS special that marked the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Until the Oscar telecast, “9/11” ranked as the most-watched nonsports-related program of the season. While executive producer Ms. Zirinsky concentrated on what the public would see, executive-in-charge Ms. West spent much of her time clearing potential obstacles-including prescreening protests from survivor groups and politicians posturing on their behalf-from the path of the project. Indeed, Ms. West even went on sales calls to make sure the network and potential sponsors were on the same page about the tone of the broadcast, which ran with limited interruptions.
Last year’s rank: Ms. Zirinsky: honorable mention; Ms. West: not ranked.
10. David Westin
President, ABC News
The performance of David Westin’s ABC News team after Sept. 11 may have earned his division a Peabody Award, but it didn’t win him much-needed respect from parent company Disney, which left him out of the loop when it tried to trade Ted Koppel and “Nightline” for the slightly younger David Letterman viewers who prefer laughter in late-night. All parties-none more so than Mr. Westin-were left with egg or mud on their face by the time Mr. Letterman chose to stay at CBS. After five years of assiduously doing the company’s bidding, Mr. Westin still struggles to be accepted as the head of the houseful of stars he inherited from Roone Arledge.
Last year’s rank: No. 8
Honorable mention Carole Cooper and Richard Leibner
Owner-agents, N.S. Bienstock
She represents top Fox News star Bill O’Reilly and made it possible for Mr. O’Reilly to ride the radio waves. Her husband represents former Fox News star Paula Zahn and successfully (not to mention quietly) defended his agency against a lawsuit in which Fox News complained he’d interfered with Ms. Zahn’s contract by giving her an offer from CNN. Fox, not used to losing, is appealing the New York court ruling that Ms. Zahn’s contract did not guarantee Fox the right of first refusal.
Last year’s rank: Ms. Cooper: honorable mention; Mr. Leibner: no ranking.