NEW YORK (AP) — Nearly losing his job on Sunday mornings may someday be remembered as the turning point in George Stephanopoulos’ broadcast-journalism career. His show, ABC News’”This Week,” has gathered momentum this fall with some newsmaking interviews of President Bush and Vice President Cheney and his first-ever second place finish to “Meet the Press” […]
NEW YORK (AP) — Nearly losing his job on Sunday mornings may someday be remembered as the turning point in George Stephanopoulos’ broadcast-journalism career.
His show, ABC News'”This Week,” has gathered momentum this fall with some newsmaking interviews of President Bush and Vice President Cheney and his first-ever second place finish to “Meet the Press” in a ratings sweeps month since he began as host in 2002.
For a few weeks in early 2005, it wasn’t clear he’d get that chance to succeed.
ABC News President David Westin had proposed Stephanopoulos and then-“Nightline” host Ted Koppel switch jobs. It was an attempt to keep Koppel from leaving the network and, frankly, Stephanopoulos was almost an afterthought. He didn’t really like the idea, but was hardly dealing from a position of strength.
Ultimately, Koppel said no. Westin called Stephanopoulos to his office for a delicate pep talk.
Stephanopoulos was, Westin recalled, “very grown-up” about the episode. The news president told Stephanopoulos to go for it, to take the Sunday morning show as far as he could.
“The strength of his character stood him in good stead, because he has gotten stronger and stronger, and better and better in his reporting, his interviewing, and making that program into his own,” Westin said.
It was an important vote of confidence after an upsetting few weeks. “It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” Stephanopoulos said.
Make no mistake, NBC’s Tim Russert remains the leader of the Sunday-morning pack. But there is room for alternatives, and for most of this decade Bob Schieffer of CBS News'”Face the Nation” has been the clear second choice.
ABC has tried to counter Russert’s strength by building a faster-paced show. Interviews on “This Week” are generally shorter, Stephanopoulos tries to get out on the road as often as he can, and short segments remember people who died that week and show the takes of late-night comics.
With a wide-open 2008 presidential election campaign looming, “This Week” has moved aggressively in recent weeks to bring lesser-known candidates like Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh on the show. Any politician has an open invitation to announce a candidacy on “This Week.”
After having dropped it for a period of time, “This Week” brought back its weekly round-table of pundit talk.
Not just the round-table, but a simple table helped. In an illustration of how little things can matter, Stephanopoulos said changing the show’s set in spring 2005 to put him behind a table made him far more comfortable.
There’s also no discounting that Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton operative who joined ABC News a decade ago and said he’d left political work behind for good, had an adjustment period – especially when compared each week to old pros like Russert and Schieffer.
“The more comfortable George Stephanopoulos is with his presentation and role in the show, the more comfortable viewers will be in watching him,” said Matthew Felling, spokesman for the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “No longer does George Stephanopoulos seem to be doing an impersonation of a talk-show host.”
Does Stephanopoulos feel that he has made the show his own?
“I suppose, yeah,” he said. “Finding my voice on the program, feeling comfortable, figuring out how to get the right mix and pacing took some time. I hope people see it. I feel better. I feel more relaxed and more in control.”
His interview with Bush in late October was a key moment. Stephanopoulos showed he could deliver a pointed question pleasantly, so not to distract from the matters at hand. Although he occasionally cut the president short, his ability at follow-up questions didn’t leaving subjects hanging.
“He has a particular way of pressing for answers and keeping focused on the question that is not at all showy or grandstanding,” Westin said.
In November, an average of 2.57 million people watched “This Week,” according to Nielsen Media Research. “Face the Nation” had 2.53 million and “Meet the Press” had 3.98 million. So far this year, ABC is up 4 percent on Sunday mornings compared to 2005, NBC is down 4 percent and CBS is unchanged.
Stephanopoulous’ new role as chief Washington correspondent gives him more visibility on ABC’s daily broadcasts, a presence that may encourage viewers to tune in Sunday, said Katherine O’Hearn, “This Week” executive producer.
At the same time, Schieffer may be hurt by his diminished visibility. Since the first week of September, when Schieffer handed over “CBS Evening News” anchoring duties to Katie Couric, “Face the Nation” ratings have declined by 8 percent, Nielsen said.
Schieffer offered no excuses, and said ABC has been putting on a strong show.
“They had a good week and we didn’t,” he said. “But I certainly haven’t given up the battle here. We’ll be all right.”
Influential TV critic Tom Shales noted in Television Week that when Stephanopoulos started on “This Week,” it was “an assignment he attacked with a deadly earnest that came across as just plain deadly.”
But, writing last week, Shales said Stephanopoulos seems to have found himself, and his show is becoming almost a must-see the way it was when David Brinkley started it.
“Russert is getting older, noticeably, demonstrably, and Schieffer even more so,” he wrote. “But Stephanopoulos has miles to go before he’s sleepy-eyed. He’s the heir apparent.”
Strong words of encouragement. But as the politicians who come on his program each week know, it’s a constant campaign.