Stephanopoulos Spurns CBS

Aug 21, 2006  •  Post A Comment

CBS News courted but couldn’t land George Stephanopoulos, who recently signed a new deal, with a nice raise, to stay at ABC News for four more years.

Mr. Stephanopoulos, ABC News’ chief Washington correspondent and moderator of ABC News’ “This Week,” is a rare commodity. He’s young, he’s articulate and he’s telegenic. He knows Washington and he’s got connections. He was a key member of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign team and first administration—but he singed some of his bridges with “All Too Human,” the 1999 bestseller he wrote after leaving the White House. Perhaps equally important: He is represented by Alan Berger, the CAA agent who ushered Katie Couric to CBS as a $15-million-a-year “Evening News” anchor/managing editor and occasional contributor to “60 Minutes.”

The interest in Mr. Stephanopoulos offers a glimpse into the mind of CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus, who has been identifying young talent he thinks has star potential since he took over CBS News last December with the declaration that “being No. 3 is not acceptable.”

Sources close to Mr. Stephanopoulos say Mr. McManus made an aggressive pitch that included talk about multiple plum roles, including Washington bureau chief and chief political analyst, and a high-profile position as the chief on-air political foil for Ms. Couric. He is said to have been told that he would be able to contribute to “60 Minutes.”

CBS News sources say Mr. Berger and Mr. Stephanopoulos initiated the talks and that the conversation never turned into an actual offer to Mr. Stephanopoulos. Both sides concede that the topic of bureau chief position arose, but the CBS sources suggested that Mr. McManus was cool to the idea. Janet Leissner has been CBS News VP and Washington bureau chief since 1998.

Both camps agree that Mr. McManus made clear he could not offer a Sunday newsmaker show in the short term because Bob Schieffer is assured that he will be moderator of “Face the Nation” for as long he wishes.

Mr. Schieffer proved himself a most valuable player when he stepped in as interim “Evening News” anchor in March 2005 and proceeded to improve viewership. Mr. Schieffer also was the only party willing to comment on the record about the CBS News-Stephanopoulos talks. “I was amused,” he said, “but I understand this is all part of the game.”

To wait an indeterminate time for “Face the Nation” would have left Mr. Stephanopoulos without the platform most crucial to building or maintaining TV clout in political and governmental circles.

Since Mr. Stephanopoulos took over “This Week” from Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson in 2002, ABC’s Sunday newsmaker show has been passed by Mr. Schieffer and “Face the Nation.” NBC’s Tim Russert and “Meet the Press” is far and away the leader, while “Face the Nation” and “This Week” duke it out for second place.

However, Mr. Stephanopoulos and executive producer Katherine O’Hearn, hired in 2005, have become more aggressive about booking political newsmakers, even if they have to travel internationally to do it.

For “This Week,” the second quarter of 2006 was one of growth. According to data from Nielsen Media Research, “This Week” was up 28 percent year to year among the 25- to 54-year-old viewers who are the key news demographic and was up 16 percent in total viewers. Indeed, the second quarter was “This Week’s” best since 2002 in total viewers and since 1999 in the demo. And the gap between “This Week” and “Face the Nation” was the smallest since 2001.

Had Mr. Stephanopoulos not stayed, ABC News would have been in a bit of a pickle because there is no one in its stable who could bring all the same qualities to the table, and because crucial midterm campaigns and elections have begun.

Mr. McManus would appear to confront the same challenge and more if he still wants to expand his political team to add expertise that enhances Ms. Couric’s political credibility without making her seem as daughterly as she might if appearing next to Mr. Schieffer.

Even if Mr. McManus didn’t poach Mr. Stephanopoulos, he forced ABC News to pay more than it otherwise would have to keep the political pundit.

In TV circles that’s a bit of gamesmanship that makes the game fun even when the game plan doesn’t pan out.