Top 10 Most Powerful in TV News

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

For many years the list of the most powerful people in TV news changed very little. There were a limited number of outlets, and most were anchored by high-profile, veteran personalities.

Then came round-the-clock cable TV news, the Internet, the war in Iraq and an ever-faster pace of the dissemination of news.

In the past year, amid changes in society and a national election, that pace ramped up to an even higher level, and the whole structure of news that had seemed so secure was rocked by change. There was the long-planned retirement of Tom Brokaw from the anchor chair at NBC, where he was replaced by Brian Williams. Then there was the sooner-than-expected decision by Dan Rather to step out of his role as anchor and managing editor of CBS News, where he remains as a reporter. And finally there was the sad news that Peter Jennings, anchor at ABC News, has lung cancer, raising the specter that his tenure as anchor is now in its final chapter.

Add to this the changes at news-related long-form shows on both cable and broadcast TV. In the wake of some ill-conceived comments, major changes took place in the management at CNN, which is the reason Jonathan Klein makes TelevisionWeek‘s list for the first time. As Fox News Channel continued to redefine how news is covered and uncovered, its star Bill O’Reilly endured a personal scandal, which is part of the reason he is not on the list individually this year. Barbara Walters stepped aside at ABC’s “20/20” magazine, as newsmagazine shows saw lower ratings than in past years.

It was an unusual year in TV news on all levels.

Each year TVWeek takes a look at who looms large and who looms larger in TV news. As always, we’ve watched the shows, followed the personnel changes, trafficked in the backstories and factored in ratings, demos, financials and a pinch of shock value to arrive at a pecking order for the people we deem the 10 most powerful in TV news.

It’s not a science. We define power in news not only as visibility but also as the ability to make things happen within a news organization. Power belongs to those who decide whether a show stays on or is canceled, whether a correspondent gets a plum assignment, or goes into obscurity.

We also measure power by the way it is exercised. For instance, Leslie Moonves, co-president of Viacom, enters the list for the first time at the very top. He is not there as an anchor or news director. He is there because it will ultimately be his decision not only who takes the anchor chair at CBS, but whether there will even be an anchor chair (or several anchor chairs). He will have a say in the future of CBS’s entire news operation and which news and magazine shows stay on the air. So without ever reporting a story, he is very powerful in news.

The rankings are based on the opinions of the editors of TVWeek. We know not everyone will agree. We welcome a dialogue and want your comments. We invite others who take the news as seriously as we do to join in the discussion. Contact us by going to TVWeek.com, clicking on Letters to the Editor. Or fax us your thoughts at 323-653-4425 or write us at 6500 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2300, Los Angeles, CA 90048.

And now-drum roll-TVWeek‘s 2005 list of the most powerful people in TV news:


Chairman and CEO, CBS; co-president and co-chief operating officer, Viacom

Reports to: Sumner Redstone, chairman and CEO,


Why he was chosen: Mr. Moonves has become the man who frames the questions and supplies the answers about the future of CBS News. Who is going to tell him not to shake things up?

After receiving the results of an independent investigation into how CBS News aired a “60 Minutes Wednesday” report that was built around unauthenticated documents portraying President Bush as a Texas Air National Guard slacker and then fumbled its response to critics, Mr. Moonves, not CBS News President Andrew Heyward, ordered four people to leave CBS News and allowed Dan Rather to step down a year early as anchor of “CBS Evening News.”

Mr. Moonves also declared it was time for a radical change at “Evening News.” Suddenly, news executives who had dithered for years about identifying a successor to Mr. Rather were thinking of “Evening News” formats that would require more than one anchor.

Mr. Moonves put CBS News on notice that the 7-year-old spinoff of “60 Minutes” might not be back in prime time next season because it has become more drag than boost for the network’s increasingly competitive Wednesday night entertainment lineup.

He respects the ethical firewall between his all-powerful position as network chief and editorial-content decisions. But he was involved in the conception of “60 Minutes Wednesday” in 1998 and he was heavily involved in the formatting of “The Early Show” (the TV home of new wife Julie Chen).

Last year’s rank: Not on list. If he is still on this list in 2006, a number of people at CBS News will be gone.


NBC News president

Reports to: Jeffrey Zucker, president, NBC Universal Television Group

Why he was chosen: NBC News still stands as the network news operation to beat, though there is an increasing sense that it can be beaten on some crucial fronts.

Mr. Shapiro’s news stable, which includes the No. 1 flagship newscast, morning show and public affairs show, “Meet the Press,” is thought to contribute some 15 percent of NBC Universal’s annual earnings. The biggest cash cow of all, “Today,” produces upward of $500 million a year in revenue.

Still, “Today” and “NBC Nightly News” have been forced to look over their shoulders as ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight” have pulled closer and closer.

In prime time, where NBC’s entertainment lineup is struggling this season, viewership for “Dateline NBC” is, according to data from Nielsen Media Research, down 4 percent and 10 percent on Sunday and Friday nights, respectively. The magazine is seeing double-digit erosion among 25- to 54-year-old viewers, the target audience for news programming.

The flawlessly engineered transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams as anchor of “NBC Nightly News” last December showed one of the strengths of the methodical and low-key Mr. Shapiro, who more than rises to the occasion whenever it’s time to marshal and harness all of NBC News’ resources, including MSNBC, as he did to cover the war in Iraq in 2003.

On the other hand, he’s not known for programming pizzazz, which would matter less if his major franchises still enjoyed vast leads over the competition.

Last year’s rank: No. 1, with boss Jeffrey Zucker


Fox News chairman

Reports to: Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO, News Corp.

Why he was chosen: Mr. Ailes, more than any other individual, turned cable news into the hottest turf in the historically cool medium of TV. In the process, he methodically dethroned and distracted his archrivals at CNN. Last year he did what was once thought impossible and bested the ratings of some broadcast networks during the Republican convention.

He still embodies and wields an old-fashioned power that other news executives, whose corporate contexts impose more checks and balances, do not and cannot. But Fox News no longer sets off the same widespread paroxysms of panic among the more traditional news organizations. “Fox News Sunday” still ranks a distant fourth among the political and public affairs shows broadcast on Sunday mornings. And Mr. Ailes comes out to playfully taunt his counterparts less often these days.

He’s got 11 of the 12 most watched news programs on cable. His lineup of heavy hitters still is led by Bill O’Reilly, who remains the king of Mr. Ailes’ feudal news personalities despite a titillating sex scandal last year, and includes two shows anchored by Shepard Smith, who still
oozes generation-next attitude.

Fox News racked up some $400 million in ad revenue in 2004, and all signs point to increased revenues ahead.

Indeed, parent company News Corp. is banking on affiliate revenues growing like Topsy starting in 2006, when the original affiliate agreements under which Fox News paid up to $10 per subscriber to get picked up by cable operators start to expire. Now it will be the cable operators who will be digging deep into their pockets to pay for the opportunity to carry Fox News.

Two-year-old Fox News Radio, which reaches upward of 10 million listeners per week, is primed for growth this summer, when it will boast nearly 450 affiliates, an increased variety of programming options and a new studio at Fox News’ Midtown Manhattan headquarters.

Even as Rupert Murdoch has apparently delighted in teasing CNBC that a Fox business-news channel might be just around the corner, Mr. Ailes seems lately to be lowering expectations for such a launch this year.

With former lieutenant Jack Abernethy now the CEO of the large Fox Television Stations group, Mr. Ailes also may finally be able to forge a relationship that is productive for the stations and for Fox News.

Last year’s rank: No. 2


ABC News president

Reports to: Anne Sweeney, president, Disney-ABC Television Group, and co-chairman, Media Networks, The Walt Disney Co.

Why he was chosen: Mr. Westin can point to a fair amount of good news: “ABC World News Tonight” is breathing down the neck of “NBC Nightly News.” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which is thought to bring in some $350 million a year in ad revenue, is nipping at the heels of NBC’s “Today”-slicing the overall gap to a mere 35 million the week ending April 8. Weekend “GMA” will be in the black by the end of its first year on the air, well ahead of schedule.

There’s been bad news, too, though it’s not unique to ABC News: Newsmagazines continue to struggle in prime time. Season-to-date viewership for one of the most iconic newsmagazines, “20/20,” is down 16 percent year to year. Viewership of “primetime>live” is down 15 percent. However, until ABC Entertainment thinks it has sure bets that can do better at 10 o’clock Thursday and Friday nights, where CBS and NBC have staked out the high ratings ground, ABC News is unlikely to lose its prime-time beachheads.

Mr. Westin has two other franchises slipping deeper into third place in key competitions: “Nightline” and “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” And Ted Koppel’s decision to leave ABC News in December doesn’t just mean the end of “Nightline” as we have known it for more than 25 years. It also means that Mr. Westin has lost one of the options for moderator he thought he had for beefing up “This Week” by having Mr. Koppel and Mr. Stephanopoulos trade places.

ABC News also has had some sad news: Peter Jennings, anchor for 22 years of “World News,” is on a day-to-day basis since announcing April 5 that he has lung cancer. That week, “World News” actually attracted 80,000 more viewers than “NBC Nightly News” in the 25 to 54 demo and fell only 70,000 short of tying “Nightly” in total viewers.

In late-night, the “Nightline” time slot is, by all accounts, still ABC News’ to lose, but the network wants an hour-long show that can compete with the lighter late-night shows, and David Letterman and Jay Leno have better news-junkie joke writers.

On the other hand, Mr. Westin’s dogged campaign for digital self-determination is paying off with distribution (and subscription revenues) on every technological platform available to the public. At the heart of the ABC News Now digital bundle is the broadband programming lineup around which he plans to fashion a 24-7 news channel carved out of ABC-affiliated local stations’ digital spectrum.

Last year’s rank: No. 7. Sibling rivalries that once were trademarks of the house that Roone Arledge built and that Mr. Westin inherited in 1997 no longer get played out regularly on Page 6. And Mr. Westin has begun to take a statesman-like stance on issues by making speeches and penning opinion pieces in newspapers.


Anchor, “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central

Reports to: Doug Herzog, president of Comedy Central and Spike TV

Why he was chosen: Every man on this list wishes his talent could do for real news what Mr. Stewart has done for funny fake news. Indeed, Mr. Stewart may have replaced Roger Ailes as Mr. Often-Imitated, Never-Duplicated. Mr. Ailes did not make Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2005. Mr. Stewart did, however, earning the encomium of “the citizen’s surrogate” from former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw.

Were Mr. Stewart to decide to go straight, he could name his price. Indeed, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves set off tizzies in January when he said that he would consider Mr. Stewart for a role on a less antiquated “CBS Evening News.”

While many real news programs consider it a victory to have limited audience erosion to single digits, “The Daily Show” is having its best year ever, averaging 1.4 million viewers, up 17 percent from last year. While traditional news outlets chase the 25- to 54-year-old news viewers, Mr. Stewart attracted 25 percent more 18- to 49-year-olds in first quarter 2005 than he did the year before.

Mr. Stewart and his crew of writers turned inaction into a bestseller titled “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction,” and they recently repeated as Peabody Award winners for “The Daily Show’s” “Indecision 2004” political coverage.

Last year’s rank: No. 10. He’s got killer cred. Last October Mr. Stewart appeared on CNN’s “Crossfire” and mocked the show to the co-hosts’ chagrined faces. Shortly thereafter, New CNN/US President Jonathan Klein let one co-host, Tucker Carlson, go to MSNBC and decreed the death or serious diminution of “Crossfire.”


Senior VP and Washington bureau chief, managing editor and moderator of “Meet the Press,” political analyst for “NBC Nightly News” and “Today,” contributing anchor for MSNBC and anchor of “Tim Russert” on CNBC

Reports to: NBC News President Neal Shapiro

Why he was chosen: This former political aide is the perennial power player, especially in the increasingly politicized climate of the nation’s capital, where his clout cuts across party lines. Nobody gets and grills the big cheeses of politics like the exquisitely prepared Mr. Russert does on “Meet the Press,” which he took over in 1991.

His ratings and his long-term contract (which will be up in 2012) are reminders that term limits are not necessarily a good thing. He gets bonus points for presiding over a top-notch team covering the D.C. beats.

Last year’s rank: No 3. This isn’t an election year.

7. N.S. Bienstock

Talent agency owned and run by husband and wife Richard Leibner and Carole Cooper

Why it was chosen: All prime-time cable news roads lead to Bienstock, whose on-air roster includes Anderson Cooper, Paula Zahn and Aaron Brown at CNN, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Broadcast news up-and-comers include ABC’s Robin Roberts and NBC’s David Gregory and Campbell Brown. Behind-the-scenes clients include “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager and David Sloan, who presides over both ABC newsmagazines.

Last year’s rank: No. 9


President, CBS News

Reports to: CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves.

Why he was chosen: CBS News’ profit grew in 2004 despite the increased costs associated with covering a presidential campaign. Still, Mr. Heyward faces the most awkward challenge of any broadcast network news president this year: proving wrong all those who thought he should have been the fifth person to los
e his job over Memogate, which was demoralizing for CBS News. But some of the problems confronting him are years in the making. “CBS Evening News” has been mired in third place for longer than viewers can remember. But it still has a loyal audience, if not a permanent anchor.

The fattest cash cow is still “60 Minutes,” which is off only slightly year to year with an average of more than 14.4 million viewers this season, and which still gets the biggest news breaks and makes the most headlines of any network newsmagazine, week in and week out.

The audience for “60 Minutes Wednesday” is down 16 percent this year. “48 Hours Investigates” is down 11 percent. If anyone can save the Wednesday edition, it is Jeff Fager, who is Sunday and Wednesday “60” executive producer.

Last year’s rank: No. 5. In dodging a disciplinary bullet, Mr. Heyward was seriously wounded. And can’t anyone muzzle the grumpy old men of “60 Minutes,” who have made whizzing inside the tent a pastime?


CNN News Group president


Executive VP, CNN News Group; Responsible for the CNN Headline News Network and for group operations and administration and program and talent development


President, CNN/U.S.

Report to: Mr. Walton reports to Turner Broadcasting System Chairman and CEO Philip Kent. Mr. Jautz and Mr. Klein report to Mr. Walton.

Why they were chosen: Mr. Walton and Mr. Jautz are in a state of Nancy Grace watching their new CNN Headline News star help boost the revamped prime-time audience by 66 percent. With an average of more than 500,000 viewers, on any given night Ms. Grace outdraws every show on MSNBC and has all but single-handedly propelled Headline News past MSNBC into third place in the cable news standings.

Mr. Klein, who wasn’t expecting this kind of sibling rivalry when he was named CNN/US’s fifth chief executive in four years last fall, faces the all-too-familiar challenge of getting more people to spend more time watching CNN. While he is hardly the first CNN chief in recent memory to verbalize that goal, he is the first to break it down to adding 30 seconds per month to the prime-time average tune-in time over the next year.

Mr. Klein’s crown jewel is $7 million-a-year man Larry King, who just re-upped through 2009. Mr. Klein’s next-generation gem: Anderson Cooper, the anchor of “Anderson Cooper 360,” who has landed on best-dressed lists, in tsunami country, in Baghdad, in Vatican City and at Windsor Castle in recent months.

Mr. Klein, the former CBS News executive who created The FeedRoom, an online distributor of streaming video, is hardly the first CNN chief in recent memory to talk of emphasizing storytelling over sheer news churn. However, he is the first in recent memory to be able to point to more than one major news event during which CNN broke from recent pattern and drew a bigger audience than Fox News. Still, on average days and nights, most CNN programs’ audiences cannot come close to their rambunctious Fox counterparts.

Meanwhile, the CNN News Group is expected to add ad-supported video-on-demand to its mostly premium VOD mix.

Last year’s rank: Mr. Walton, No. 8. Mr. Jautz and Mr. Klein not listed.


President, NBC Universal Television Group

Reports to: Bob Wright, NBC chairman and CEO

Why he was chosen: NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC report to the quick-witted, silver-tongued, hard-charging Mr. Zucker (as does all NBC Universal programming except sports and Olympics), who won wunderkind status as executive producer of “Today” for seven heady years in the ’90s.

These days, one question frequently asked is when Mr. Zucker’s old magic will rub off on NBC News, whose most valuable franchises appear vulnerable; on MSNBC, which continues to defy sustained growth patterns; and on CNBC, where newly installed President Mark Hoffman has been preparing himself to tackle the business day lineup, which has never recovered ratings lost when Wall Street became a less amusing ride for Mr. and Ms. Middle America in the late 1990s.

Where Mr. Zucker goes-especially if it’s anywhere near “Today,” where the chemistry no longer seems so effortless-foreboding gossip and speculation follow. While staunch supporters insist that Mr. Zucker is collaborative, he still appears to face some hard decisions in the months ahead. Based on his past, however, the way he wields power is likely not to leave many fingerprints.

Last year’s rank: Shared No. 1 with NBC News President Neal Shapiro



The interim “CBS Evening News” anchor and executive producer Jim Murphy quickly turned the newscast into a more conversational half-hour that suits Mr. Schieffer’s easygoing persona. Disruptions related to March Madness make it difficult to get a real sense of average viewership for Mr. Schieffer, whose stint began March 10. However, he’s a hit with the print press, which is throwing him more wet kisses than Pamela Anderson at a bikini contest. And “Face the Nation,” which he continues to moderate, is the only Sunday newsmaker show whose ratings are up from a year ago at this time.