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10 MOST Powerful in TV News

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

1 NEAL SHAPIRO NBC News president, reports to NBC Chairman Bob Wright
His division makes enough money-an estimated $600 million in ad revenues and $240 million in pretax profits this year-to give him a lot to spend wisely. Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press win their ratings races easily. Weekend Today has a strong lead over its CBS competition. Dateline NBC remains an agile and reliable part of prime time. He’s got the most ascendant stars-from Today’s Katie Couric and Matt Lauer to Meet’s Tim Russert-and he knows they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. As for Nightly favorite Tom Brokaw, when he turns the anchor desk over to anointed successor Brian Williams after the presidential election of 2004, he is likely to continue to play a role at NBC News. When Jane Pauley takes her self-determined leave from Dateline at the end of the season, NBC has a wide array of candidates for her job as Stone Phillips’ co-anchor, (including Today’s Ann Curry and White House correspondent Campbell Brown). And Weekend Today is the peacetime perch of David Bloom, one of the breakout personalities in Iraqi war coverage. Behind the scenes, Mr. Shapiro has an enviable phalanx of executives and producers who tend to work as he does: quietly and in concert. It paid off with a war strategy overseen by fellow ABC News emigre Mark Lukasiewicz that prepared them for almost anything-except bone-headed judgment on the part of Baghdad free-lancer Peter Arnett, who was gone the day after he killed his journalistic resurrection by criticizing the coalition war effort on Iraqi state TV. Mr. Shapiro’s News division also produces the hit Chris Matthews Show for syndication by NBC Enterprises.
In the battle for the attention-getting “gets,” Dateline is not as potent as Today-not to mention the ferociously competitive grand dames at ABC News-and Ms. Couric is not yet a certified prime-time star. Mr. Williams’ ratings on CNBC’s prime-time lineup (and previously on MSNBC) suggest a faithful, if cult-size, following.
Mr. Shapiro didn’t create MSNBC’s identity problems, but he inherited them at a time when NBC and GE appear to have less interest in a channel that’s an also-ran-even if it does bring in profits, including $30 million to $40 million a year in licensing fees from partner Microsoft. The big, thorny questions: When the situation in Iraq settles down, can a turn to the lite right with talk-radio-style personalities keep MSNBC’s war-inflated ratings from deflating? Can prodigal host Keith Olbermann, media basher Jesse Ventura, Republican former Congressman Joe Scarborough and shock talk jock Michael Savage find the audiences that arch-liberal Phil Donahue could not?
LAST YEAR’S RANK: No. 3
2. BILL O’REILLY
Host of Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor, reports to Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes
He passed Larry King Live in the ratings in 2000 and hasn’t looked back since. Already FNC’s top draw, the war has boosted his audience to record levels. There is no bigger personality in cable news. When he publishes nonfiction (The O’Reilly Factor and The No Spin Zone) it becomes a bestseller. When he pens fiction (Those Who Trespass) it gets optioned for the big screen by Mel Gibson. In 2002, Westwood One launched The Radio Factor, which became the fastest rollout in the medium’s history, adding a cumulative 3 million listeners each week on upwards of 350 stations. In February, he launched an eponymous proprietary Web site. He’s a one-man multiplatform, cross-promotional machine.
He doesn’t seem to be destined to be as big as Rush Limbaugh on the radio, but he’s done what Mr. Limbaugh couldn’t: translate to TV.
At $5,000 to $12,000 per 30-second spot, Mr. O’Reilly, still commands less money for advertising in his show than Lou Dobbs Moneyline.
LAST YEAR’S RANK: No. 5
3. ROGER AILES
Chairman and CEO of Fox News, reports to News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch and President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin
Smart, relentless and ferocious, Roger Ailes turned cable news competition into a take-no-prisoners war that only Fox’s lean and mean team (some 900 employees) could win. Fox News Channel is the most-watched on cable and home of four of the five most-watched cable news shows: The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, the Shepard Smith-hosted Fox News Report and On the Record With Greta Van Susteren. Mr. Ailes is the only TV news executive who wields the sort of old-fashioned, bare-knuckled power with which News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch built his empire. Analysts predict earnings will double to $120 million in fiscal 2003, but analysts say CNN’s ad rates are almost double those commanded by Fox News. Fox’s ad rates are expected to jump significantly in fiscal 2003. In 2006, look out. Fox News Channel will begin shedding the per-subscriber fees it paid to get on cable lineups in the early years.
Having snatched the ratings crown from CNN and proved that Fox’s right-leaning talk-radio style appeals to upscale audiences, Mr. Ailes is now focused on convincing Madison Avenue that Fox has the combo of viewer quantity and quality to warrant nearly doubling its ad rates to CNN’s cost-per-thousand levels. That’s critical to maintaining revenue momentum, since subscriber growth, now hovering above 80 million, is only about 4 million shy of maxing out.
Despite some heroic work from war correspondents, Fox News Channel is winning the ratings battle but losing the journalism war. A poll by sister publication TV Guide shows that 31 percent of people tune first to CNN when news breaks. Twenty percent tune to Fox, which risks being seen as the Rodney Dangerfield of journalism, thanks to the overriding impression left by rah-rah reports from an epauletted and embedded Oliver North, and thanks to partisan cheers and sneers by its studio corps at anyone who doesn’t toe the Fox line. Then there’s the hypocrisy on display as Fox, for two solid days, bashed Peter Arnett, who didn’t give away secrets on Iraqi TV. At the same time, Fox glossed over the conduct of the showboating Geraldo Rivera. The Pentagon said he was to be ejected from Iraq for disclosing sensitive strategic information. For two days Fox let Mr. Rivera cast stones at alleged rumor mongers (“rats” at former employer NBC) and make jokes about not drawing any more maps, before saying that Mr. Rivera was leaving Iraq “voluntarily.” After more than six years on the air, Fox News Sunday with moderator Tony Snow runs a distant fourth to NBC’s Meet the Press.
LAST YEAR’S RANKING: 1
4. ANDREW HEYWARD
President of CBS News, reports to CBS President Leslie Moonves
The longest-tenured of the news organization presidents, Mr. Heyward presides over an operation that is stronger than the ostensible sum of its parts: 60 Minutes (the gray eminence is the gold standard for newsmagazines), 60 Minutes II (ranked 45th among 166 shows for the season, second only to 60 itself among newsmagazines), 48 Hours Investigates (ranked 74th, it remains a go-to franchise for prime-time planners), Evening News (still third) and The Early Show (finally sustaining ratings and demographic improvement). Adding to profitability are successful spinoffs both inside the Viacom family (CBS News co-produces the growing BET Nightly News) and outside (CBS News Productions). CBS News is AOL’s news provider and a partner in CBSMarketWatch.com.
Dan Rather scores the biggest get of the year, an interview with Saddam Hussein, and producers hire an actor to fake the accented “translation.” 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt will turn his baby over to 60 Minutes II executive producer Jeff Fager in mid-2004 and then get paid to kibitz. He got former presidential opponents Bill Clinton and Bob Dole to debate on 60. Is anyone listening?
Early ratings beg the question of whether The Early Show will be able to capitalize on interest in the war, and then sustain it when the war ends.
LAST YEAR’S RANKING: No. 4
5. TIM RUSSERT
Moderator of Meet the Press and Washington bureau chief and senior VP of NBC News, reports to NBC NEWS President Neal Shapiro
At the top of his game, Tim Russert is Mr. NBC in
Washington and will be until the end of 2012, thanks to the unprecedented 12-year contract he negotiated and signed in late 2001, and an average of more than 5 million viewers on any Sunday. He is an institution.
His reluctance to share his forum with other members of the press on a regular basis has led some Washington wags to call his show Me The Press.
LAST YEAR’S RANK: No. 7
6. PHIL KENT
Chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting System, reports to AOL Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes
JIM WALTON
President and CEO of the CNN News Group, reports to Mr. Kent
EASON JORDAN
Chief news executive and news-gathering president for the CNN News Group, reports to Mr. Walton
Connie Chung and the folks who hired her-and seriously considered a merger with ABC News as well as a misguided attempt to go tit-for-tabloid-tat with Fox-are gone. Long-timers are back in control. Neither Mr. Walton nor his returnee boss, Mr. Kent, needs any introduction to the process of TV news or to the 22-year-old news channel, which changed TV news forever. If ever there were a story with which CNN could reiterate its mission, it is the war in Iraq, for which globe-trotting news-gathering chief Eason Jordan was given the keys to a war chest of some $25 million. The CNN News Group-4,000 employees and 35 networks and services ranging from CNN en Espanol to CNN Newsource and the 600-plus affiliates who trade video with CNN-is the largest of any U.S. TV news organization. It racks up annual ad revenues of about $1 billion and profits of about $200 million.
CNN may never again win the battle for ratings supremacy, but it scored significant demographic victories in the first few weeks of the war, which will help CNN’s mantra (“Not all ratings points were created equal”) and marketing slogan (“News. Not noise.”) resonate convincingly inside debt-ridden parent AOL Time Warner and on Madison Avenue. NewsNight anchor Aaron Brown has cultivated a polarizing on-air presence.
Rebranding of CNNfn is on the slow track while executives scan ahead for a better business climate in which to change the brand to CNNMoney.
LAST YEAR’S RANK: Not ranked
7. JEFF FAGER
Executive producer of 60 Minutes II, reports to Betsy West, senior VP of CBS News
He ably represents the next generation of leadership at CBS News: competent, likable and low-key. In spite of 60 Minutes founder Don Hewitt’s initial reservations, Mr. Fager proved he was the man to touch up the 3-year-old 60 Minutes II franchise and make it look younger without disfiguring it. He’s earned the right to inherit the granddaddy of all prime-time news magazines next year in spite of Mr. Hewitt’s initial disinclination to make any move that might be interpreted as his retirement or a prelude to it.
There is no downside, only the question of whether CBS can re-establish Sunday night in a way that will boost 60 back into Nielsen’s Top 10.
LAST YEAR’S RANK: Not ranked
8. N.S. BIENSTOCK
Talent agency
The depth and breadth of clientele-in network and local news, documentary, reality and even entertainment-executive ranks-represented by their 10 agents are unique, running the gamut from CBS News’ Dan Rather to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly to telegenic Salon.com writer Jake Tapper. Husband-and-wife partners Richard Leibner and Carole Cooper joke that every hour of the day there’s a Bienstock client on the air. That is certainly true during the war, where their newest star, Richard Engel, is ABC’s free-lance man in Baghdad, and clients such as NBC’s David Bloom and CBS’s John Roberts are raising their profiles in a way that could be significant come contract time next year.
There are always more clients than top slots.
LAST YEAR’S RANK: Honorable mention
9. DAVID WESTIN
President of ABC News, reports to ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau
The late, great sports and news executive Roone Arledge collected the best talent-on-air and off-air-that money could buy when the good times were rolling. When lawyer-turned-network executive David Westin took over five years ago he inherited those stars, including Ted Koppel, Charlie Gibson, Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. His bailiwick also includes ABC News Radio and ABC News Productions.
The indefatigable Ms. Walters and Ms. Sawyer are still the two to beat for a big get, but the big gets get smaller and lighter every sweeps period, and their once-mighty magazines, 20/20 and PrimeTime have lost appointment-TV status in between the celebrity tell-alls and are swooning at 74th and 87th places, respectively, for the season to date.
On a great day, ABC can still razzle-dazzle ’em. On a good day ABC News is No. 2 across the board, from Good Morning America through World News Tonight and Nightline. On a bad day, it’s going to be the last network news team to get on top of the big story-whether it’s the tragic end to the shuttle Columbia mission or the dramatic start of the U.S. war in Iraq-which Mr. Westin had vowed to “own.” On the worst days, ABC News will be the last to know its bosses are proposing to marry it off to CNN (the public learned ABC has revenues of $6 billion a year and profits of approximately $60 million), or to replace Mr. Koppel with David Letterman (the public learned that Nightline makes a $13 million annual profit), or to move 20/20, the last Friday night franchise on the network, to another night, thus undermining it.
LAST YEAR’S RANK: 10
10. DENNIS SWANSON
Executive VP and chief operating officer of Viacom Television Stations Group, reports to Group President and CEO Fred Reynolds
Some will argue that there was, perhaps still is, nowhere to go but up for the 16 CBS stations in the 39-station group he has managed with Marine-style authority since his unexpected defection from his post as general manager of WNBC-TV, New York, in July 2002. There’s no arguing that Mr. Swanson was given a lot of power and money, which he in turn has shared with his general managers. When he (and they ) hire (and fire), it turns markets throughout the country into pinball games.
LAST YEAR’S RANK: Not ranked