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10 Most Powerful in Television News

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The past 12 months have been big for news, from the war in Iraq to the troubled economy to the battle over broadcast indecency to the 9/11 Commission. And the news is only going to get bigger with the coming political conventions and national election and the ongoing war on terror.
It was a period in which the news often made news, as a national debate raged over which news people and outlets did or did not have a political agenda. There is no doubt views of news, like national politics, are more polarized than at any time since Richard Nixon occupied the White House. While all too many young people completely ignore news, others have become more passionate about the news than ever before. The way news is presented, and where it is presented (cable, broadcast, print, Internet), is clearly now part of the story.
Each year at this time TelevisionWeek takes a look at who is big in news. We’ve watched the shows, followed the changes, heard the back stories, checked the ratings and demographics as we contemplated the distribution of power in the TV news universe. After weighing all these factors, we assigned a pecking order in which we ranked the 10 most powerful people on the American news scene.
Many of the names will be familiar from the airwaves and from last year’s list. Two of the names (Jeff Zucker and Jon Stewart) are new to our list this year. At least one (Mr. Stewart) will likely be a surprise, but he is not No. 10 just for shock value. In today’s society, for many of his viewers he is the only news source they pay much attention to anywhere on the dial.
Only one name has disappeared completely off the list from last year: Dennis Swanson, executive VP and chief operating officer of the Viacom Television Stations Group, remains a key industry player, but the restructuring and stream of personnel changes he made in the Viacom stations’ news organizations is now mostly done and we are waiting for the results.
The rankings on any power list depend on one’s point of view. We invite others who take the news as seriously as we do to join in the discussion and tell us whom we left off, or who should never have been on the list. Contact us by going to TVWeek.com, clicking on Letters to the Editor and choosing Editor. Or you can fax us your thoughts at (323) 653-4425 or write us at 6500 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2300, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
1. Jeff Zucker
President of the NBC Entertainment, News and Cable Group, and
Neal Shapiro
President of NBC News
Report to: Mr. Shapiro has reported to Mr. Zucker since December 2003, when Mr. Zucker’s turf was expanded to include news and cable, including CNBC, in addition to his entertainment responsibilities; Mr. Zucker reports to NBC Chairman and CEO Bob Wright.
Why they were chosen: On paper, the combo adds up to a perfect working definition of yin and yang. The quiet and unflashy Mr. Shapiro, who masterfully commanded NBC’s sweeping coverage of the Iraq war, has not been able to shake off the nagging rap that he is too yin to win the whole-hearted confidence of Mr. Wright during more peaceful times, even if his news division produces the No. 1 morning show, the No. 1 evening newscast and the most powerful public affairs show, “Meet the Press.”
Mr. Zucker demonstrated as executive producer of “Today” that he is a natural bundle of showmanship and business who knows how to maximize the value of the news division’s cash cow, which last year brought in nearly $500 million in revenue, and of its powerful, pricey princess, the $14-million-a-year Katie Couric.
In staving off the challenge of ABC’s “Good Morning America” after Mr. Zucker left to become NBC’s top programmer, “Today” has learned that not even a margin of 1 million-plus viewers will quell complaints that the most powerful and popular morning news show ever has lost some of its edge if not its strong lead.
Now Mr. Zucker is positioned to be a key part of the mix without being written off by media gossips as Mr. Shapiro and his braintrust tweak “Today” and maximize the prime-time punch of “Dateline NBC” and of Ms. Couric, who seems more interested in contributing to prime-time news and magazine shows than in the past, even though she always had the contractual connection to do so. Her coverage of Elizabeth Smart and disgraced newsman Jayson Blair are just two examples of her stepped-up activity outside her early-morning domain. And of course, the other back story is the transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams as anchor of top-rated “Nightly News,” which is due to take place after the presidential election but probably before year’s end.
Critics fret that “Dateline” and “Today” have become too much a tool for the entertainment division with enormous amounts of time devoted to “The Apprentice” finale last week and similar lavishing of attention/promotion coming for the “Frasier” and “Friends” finales. But Mr. Zucker always has seen his role as part newsman, part pop-culture savant and part programmer giving the public what it wants.
Whether the team of Mr. Zucker and Mr. Shapiro can still reasonably dream of a more competitive MSNBC, which was rendered the perpetual also-ran in the cable news race by never-ending executive meddling, remains to be seen. But Mr. Shapiro made a bold move in installing former ABC colleague Rick Kaplan as president of MSNBC. Mr. Kaplan has begun moving pieces behind the scenes and should be able to count on discernible ratings boosts from the heat being generated in Iraq and in U.S. politics.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zucker also oversees CNBC, which is not part of NBC News. It has been hampered by the nation’s economic problems, which impact its daytime audience of business people. Indications are that CNBC is in the process of weaning itself off the news and will depend more on personalities as it focuses on improving its prime-time lineup, which this past year added commentator and comedian Dennis Miller.
Last year’s rank: Mr. Zucker was not eligible to be on the list because he did not have oversight of news until late in 2003. His addition firms up the foundation of Mr. Shapiro, who was also No. 1 last year.
2. Roger Ailes
Fox News chairman
Reports to: News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch and President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin.
Why he was chosen: The cable news ratings wars are over, at least for now, and the visionary and ferocious Mr. Ailes is the undisputed winner.
Fox News Channel finished the first quarter of 2004 with more viewers in prime time (an average of 1.4 million) than CNN (806,000) and MSNBC (333,000) together, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.
Only eight years after Mr. Ailes created Fox News in his own tough, smart image and paid reverse subscriber fees to get cable companies to carry it, Fox News is minting money. Operating income rose 39 percent year to year, according to News Corp.’s first-quarter report. FNC now boasts a killer lineup of talent. In addition to perpetual ratings leader Bill O’Reilly, who averaged more than 2.2 million viewers in the first quarter, the million-plus-viewer club includes “Hannity & Colmes” (1.5 million), “The Fox Report With Shepard Smith” (1.4 million), “Special Report With Brit Hume” (1.2 million) and “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren” (1.1 million).
From pre-dawn to prime time, its lineup beats the competition, perhaps nowhere more tellingly than in the business-icon wars. In the first quarter, “Your World With Neil Cavuto” trounced CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” by almost 300,000 viewers, despite Mr. Dobbs’ increasingly strident stance.
Mr. Ailes has largely silenced his competitors, most of whom seem to have lost interest in trying to argue with or ape Fox News. They have learned that while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it can also be the surest way to fail embarrassingly.
Even criticism of the network’s now-familiar tone and tilt seems more obligatory and less frequent than it once was, perhaps an acknowledgement that while Fox is a robust success, it is not a content or busine
ss model that can work for everyone, perhaps not even for anyone else.
For the first time since he shook the ground under the journalistic mainstream, there actually seems to be less reaction among competitors. Fox may be able to use its unique ties to the White House to acquire and release the supposedly secret Richard Clarke tape, but that doesn’t mean others can or will do something similar.
Things are never perfect for any organization. The Fox Broadcasting Co. still has no national news show or strong newsmagazine. And the perpetual fourth-place performance of “Fox News Sunday,” the broadcast newsmaker carried on Fox stations, hosted since last fall by Chris Wallace, is a reminder that the Fox brand is not a guarantee of high ratings.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ailes continues to seek ways to expand Fox News’ profile, as he is doing with radio and the syndication of an Alan Colmes show as well as five-minute bites of Fox News attitude and personalities. He has increased traffic to the Fox News Web site, which lags behind CNN.com and MSNBC.com despite such attractions as an election guide, Roger Friedman’s gossip column and an assortment of Fox-logo paraphernalia for sale.
And he has set competitors’ hair on end with hints that he’s considering spinning off themed channels–a business channel is most frequently mentioned–that could expect carriage by News Corp.’s DirecTV, which can provide instant access to 12.2 million viewers for any new product.
Last year’s rank: No. 3. The idea that he might claim more friendly territory gives Mr. Ailes a lift.
3. Tim Russert
Senior VP and Washington bureau chief of NBC News, managing editor and moderator of “Meet the Press,” political analyst for “NBC Nightly News” and “Today,” anchor of “Tim Russert” on CNBC, contributing anchor for MSNBC
Reports to: NBC News President Neal Shapiro
Why he was chosen: Mr. Russert is a unique institution in Washington. Thanks to his one-of-a-kind 12-year contract, the political-operative-turned-commentator is effectively free of term limits in a town in which everyone is in perpetual campaign mode. So until at least the end of 2012, anyone who wants to run for president or challenge a president, float an idea or kill an idea, define themselves or defend themselves, must, repeat must, go head-to-head with Mr. Russert.
And they must do it well, whether they are President Bush, senior administration officials, top elected representatives or Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Kerry.
Mr. Russert’s combination of political instincts, a nose for news, extreme preparation, bottomless supply of energy and a dogged but respectful refusal to take a non-answer for an answer means news will be made on his show. And the occasional dramatic flourish speaks volumes, as when former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke whipped out a handwritten note of praise from President Bush at the end of a week in which the Bush administration ganged up on him to discredit his charge that the president was distracted from the war on terrorism because he was fixated on Iraq.
Last year’s rank: No. 5. Mr. Russert is riding the wave of an exceedingly long and contentious election year.
4. Bill O’Reilly
Host of “The O’Reilly Factor”
Reports to: Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes
Why he was chosen: He is the best at what he does on the tube: Turning one man’s opinion–whether one agrees with him or not–into terrific TV. His ability to shape and mobilize opinion has never been more vividly on display than this year, as he went to bat for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which capitalized on controversy and has become an unlikely blockbuster
He led Fox News Channel into the promised land of big ratings and still leads the pack by a commanding margin. His show is an efficient promotional platform from which he has generated a daily radio show heard on some 400 stations, a widely syndicated newspaper column and three best sellers–“The O’Reilly Factor,” “The No-Spin Zone” and “Who’s Looking Out for You.” He also hit pay dirt with a novel, “Those Who Trespass,” that has been optioned by Mr. Gibson’s production company.
Business Week pegged him as a $60 million man. With all this money, one might think he could buy a thicker skin than was on display last year when Mr. O’Reilly took loud umbrage at Al Franken’s portrayal of him on the cover of “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.” Fox’s subsequent, short-lived lawsuit served only to help turn Mr. Franken’s book into a best seller.
Last year’s rank: No. 2. It’s hard to keep a twice-daily act fresh and spontaneous, and Mr. O’Reilly’s never-ending self-promotional tour has taken him to “The View” so often he sometimes seems like just the tallest of “the ladies.”
5. Andrew Heyward
President of CBS News
Reports to: CBS Television Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves
Why he was chosen: Mr. Heyward, the dean of TV news presidents, quietly presides over a deceptively well-oiled and reliable division that produces a minimum of 33 hours of news programming each week for its network.
The reinvigorated “60 Minutes” and its self-assured spinoff “60 Minutes II” are the top-ranked newsmagazines on the air, and “48 Hours Investigates” is the most flexible utility player on any news division’s bench.
Not a beat is likely to be missed in June, when “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt hands control of the most profitable and powerful newsmagazine in TV history to Jeff Fager and becomes the division’s designated rover, the executive producer of CBS News.
In its 25th season, “CBS News Sunday Morning” is reasserting itself, growing 9 percent in total viewers and 13 percent in the key 25 to 54 news demo over the course of the season, while the ostensibly friskier Sunday edition of “Today” is essentially flat. “Face the Nation” and moderator Bob Schieffer have capitalized on the lead-in by growing 12 percent this season in 25 to 54 and securing second place in the Sunday newsmaker race.
Most notably, “The Early Show” is on a slow but sustained growth streak that suggests the 30-year jinx on the morning time slot finally is broken.
In the meantime, CBS News Productions and Eye Too Productions continue to churn out revenue-producing programming for outlets ranging from sister Viacom operations to Court TV, which has a content partnership with NBC. It was Eye Too that last November turned an electronic press kit into an instant news special about Elizabeth Smart.
Last year’s rank: No. 4. With “CBS Evening News” slipping deeper into third place this season, the awkward question of who will succeed Dan Rather–and when–as anchor quietly looms larger.
6. Jeff Fager
Executive producer of “60 Minutes II,” incoming “60 Minutes” executive producer
Reports to: Betsy West, senior VP of CBS News
Why he was chosen: Perhaps never has any producer been more suited and prepared to receive a precious torch than Mr. Fager will be when he takes the helm of the granddaddy of TV newsmagazines at season’s end. He knows the inner workings of “60 Minutes” from having worked for Mr. Hewitt for five years at “60” and from having proved to Mr. Hewitt that there was room for “II” at CBS News since the spinoff launched five years ago.
In addition, he will take with him as No. 2 another veteran of “II” and “60,” Patti Hassler, who will become the first woman executive editor of the Sunday night newsmagazine. And he will leave “60 Minutes II” in the hands of “60 Minutes” executive editor Josh Howard, thus starting the cycle all over again.
Last year’s rank: No. 7. Mr. Fager is readier than ever for the challenge.
7. David Westin
President of ABC News
Reports to: Alex Wallau, president of ABC TV Network
Why he was chosen: In spite of the stresses the network’s persistent prime-time problems continue to put on “20/20” and “PrimeTime Thursday”–and, arguably, “Nightline,” which is not packing its traditional crisis-time ratings punch–Mr. Westin’s news di
vision (which includes ABC News Radio and ABC News productions) has posted double-digit increases in operating income that may net $100 million by the time they’re applied to the bottom line.
On his to-do-and-deal-with list this year is change, change and more change, notably the loss of Barbara Walters, the original grande dame of the “big get,” as a weekly presence on “20/20,” perhaps as a result of losing one too many decisions to Diane Sawyer.
There’s the rollout in September of Saturday and Sunday editions of “GMA.” The weekend push can, to some extent, capitalize on measures taken to prevent ABC News from being MIA when big stories break. Some hope against hope that as stations expand their local news presence on Sunday mornings, it also can give a boost to “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” which dropped to third place after it was revamped and tucked under the wing of “Nightline” last fall.
Now that Mr. Westin has finally wrung an agreement from “Good Morning America” executive producer Shelley Ross to move to “PrimeTime” as executive producer, he can prevent the unthinkable loss of “GMA” touchstone Charlie Gibson, whose contract expires in June and who had distilled renegotiations down to “Shelley or me.”
Set to take the reins at “GMA” is Ben Sherwood, who has never produced a morning show but who worked with “GMA” co-anchor Diane Sawyer in the first four years of “PrimeTime Live” and who later worked for recently deposed “PrimeTime” executive producer David Doss at “NBC Nightly News” before trying life as an author. The question is whether Mr. Sherwood can maintain, much less improve, “GMA’s” competitive position in relation to “Today.”
“PrimeTime” is still expected to go the ensemble route, but Mr. Gibson and Ms. Sawyer are expected to remain in the mix.
Network insiders and observers firmly believe Mr. Westin’s job would be easier if Ms. Sawyer didn’t have such a need to be queen bee and play kingmaker of ABC News. And if he didn’t listen to her so often. But those observers note that Peter Jennings has been enjoying a prime-time renaissance with well-received specials “Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness,” “The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy” and “Ecstasy Rising.” Since ABC is running fourth in prime time and “World News Tonight” is running second in the flagship news competition, the timing of Mr. Jennings’ specials could not be better.
Last year’s rank: No. 9
8. Jim Walton
President of the CNN News Group
Reports to: Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting System.
Why he was chosen: Saving CNN may come down to him. However, CNN watchers, who have become increasingly dismayed with whiplash-like changes in management and direction in the past few years, are genuinely uncertain about what is in Mr. Walton’s mind. It’s clear he knows how to save money by the millions, which increases the CNN profit margins and further endears him to Time Warner management.
However, it’s not clear Mr. Walton knows how to maintain CNN as a premier global news organization that attracts a large audience. He has yet to articulate a clear vision even in the face of charges by some critics that intangible damage is being done by the shrinking vision of what CNN is or aims to be.
Once the only cable news game in town, CNN is currently the most inscrutable of cable news organizations. Mr. Walton and CNN/U.S. Executive VP and General Manager Princell Hair have not articulated a strategic journalistic vision beyond the idea that CNN is the gold standard in news. They have rearranged deck chairs on the bureau management blueprint and are clinging to the previous regime’s mantra–if people will watch longer, the ratings will rise–which raises the question of whether they’ve given up on attracting new viewers.
Indeed, CNN’s once mighty icons, Lou Dobbs and Larry King, do not swash and buckle the way they once did. When the tentpoles get shorter and the tent feels smaller, convincing new people to come into the tent proves increasingly difficult.
The hiring of Joel Cheatwood to develop programming for CNN Headline News has also raised eyebrows. Mr. Cheatwood made his reputation in local news, where he is known mostly for stunts, tricks, tabloid touches and making more noise than news.
Last year’s rank: Shared No. 6 with Mr. Kent and Eason Jordan, then chief news executive and newsgathering president (now executive VP) for the CNN News Group.
9. N.S. Bienstock
Talent agency
The agency is owned and run by husband and wife Richard Leibner and Carole Cooper.
Why it was chosen: While last year may have been a time of bigger deals, this year will be full of bustling for the 11-agent firm. Once best known as the representatives of Dan Rather, they run the gamut from news (Anderson Cooper, Paula Zahn) and reality to entertainment, from TV Hall of Famers to one of the sweethearts of Sundance, “Super Size Me” filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who has a commitment for a reality show pilot and an unrelated script from FX. Their client Jeff Fager has just received an important boost at CBS.
Last year’s rank: No. 8. Bienstock is the superstore of news talent and producers.
10. Jon Stewart
Anchor of “The Daily Show”
Reports to: Bill Hilary, executive VP and general manager for Comedy Central
Why he was chosen: Mr. Stewart dutifully and constantly reminds people he’s a faux anchor of a faux news show, but that hasn’t stopped his coronation as the chief news source for young America.
Then his faux news team actually breaks the bad news to a Tennessee TV station that it was among the stations that mistook a government-funded ode to the new Medicare bill for a fair and balanced video news release.
That’s why any news organization would be happy to have him. That’s also why, thanks to a lucrative new long-term contract, he’s staying where he can have more fun for four more years.
Last year’s rank: Not ranked, but with the political year and Comedy Central’s “Indecision” coverage in full swing, he is a lock on the list.
HONORABLE MENTION
Chris Matthews: The single-minded, loud-mouthed moderator of “Hardball” has the second-most-popular show on MSNBC (after “MSNBC Investigates”). While Fox’s Shepard Smith continues to win the 7 p.m. nightly news hour, Mr. Matthews has made it a real race for second place with CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” at times drawing more viewers than Mr. Cooper. And his weekly syndicated roundtable of journalists has developed a loyal following and shaken up the Sunday newsmaker show landscape.
Barbara Walters: After finally deciding there was more to life than work (and the thankless battles with Diane Sawyer for the big “gets”) the heretofore tireless Ms. Walters announced she was stepping down as mainstay of “20/20” while remaining an active part of ABC News. She will also be busy writing her memoirs for Miramax Books for a reported $6 million advance. That should help her enjoy “The View,” as the ladies say on the daytime show she created.