Turmoil at "This Week"

Fear of Tim Russert pushed ABC News to fire William Kristol.

Published January 6, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The millennium got off to an auspicious start for ABC News and its president, David Westin. The network estimated that 175 million viewers tuned into some part of its special round-the-clock New Year's Eve broadcast -- more than NBC and CBS combined brought in.

At ABC, they could see that when a punchy Peter Jennings has to stay on the air for almost 24 hours straight, he has to change his outfit as often as Cher. Some folks may have stayed with him, hoping he would come apart at the seams like Jerry Lewis used to at the end of his muscular dystrophy telethons. By the time I tuned in, shortly before the witching hour, Jennings (by then in blue blazer and khakis) was talking to illusionist David Blaine for the second time that day.

Maybe it was due to his lack of sleep, but when Blaine performed a rather obvious stunt, Jennings just kind of lost it. After asking the anchor for the names of the people he cared most about (Jennings named his two children), Blaine set his own coat sleeve on fire -- and then pulled it back to reveal "Elizabeth" -- the name of Jennings' daughter -- magically written on his arm in charcoal!

Jennings was stunned.

"I was freaked out," he admitted later to USA Today -- which caused me to wonder whether the old boy gets out enough. "He had no idea what I was going to say," Jennings continued, though you don't have to be David Mamet to suspect that Blaine could have found the names of Jennings' loved ones and written them in charcoal all over his body before the show.

It was with somewhat similar skepticism that I greeted ABC's pre-Christmas announcement that it would not be renewing the contract of "This Week" regular William Kristol and that his dismissal had nothing to do with his politics. The conservative commentator and Weekly Standard editor had been one of the not-quite-furious five on the network's Sunday morning wonk fest.

Together with co-hosts Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts and fellow regulars George Will and George Stephanopolous, Kristol used to kick around the issues (and candidates) of the day. Will and Kristol held down the conservative corner, defending their turf against the vaguely liberal majority of Donaldson, Roberts and Stephanopolous, thereby lending a certain credibility to the show's rather soft-focus approach.

Though remembered by some as the man behind Dan Quayle, Kristol has proved to be a surprisingly savvy and seemingly good-natured voice of conservatism, and is credited with being one of the first of the chattering class this election cycle to take the challenges of presidential hopefuls John McCain and Bill Bradley seriously.

Yet suddenly, he met the ejection seat. Kristol's dismissal would have been insulting enough but it came almost contemporaneously with ABC's announcement that fellow panelist Stephanopolopous would be staying.

Dorrance Smith, former "This Week" executive producer, told the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that ABC's management is "tone-deaf when it comes to political evenhandedness ... Rather than being journalistically honest, they're much more comfortable with people who share viewpoints closer to their own."

(Said Kristol of ABC: "They gave me a good run. I paid for the kids' college tuition. I'm not complaining.")

Kristol may not have been much of a factor in "This Week's" ratings crash, however. The problem is probably more in the competition: Tim Russert. Since taking over "Meet the Press" in the early '90s, NBC's intractable interviewer has made that show his own and the one for political junkies to watch. It is not just Russert's style that keeps audiences (and important political guests) coming back. (Though with his pile of notes and tenuous smile there is something riveting about him: he's like the sly small town detective people think they can put one over on, or an indefatigable IRS auditor.) In fact, "Meet the Press" has become so identified with him that CNN's Bernard Kalb refers to it wryly as "Meet the Russert."

By contrast, "This Week," has two hosts, the uncharismatic Donaldson and Roberts, and a relatively unfocused format. A single anchor and perhaps a regular guest interviewer would be a more obvious change, keeping a duo of informed, left-right commentators like Kristol and Stephanopolous to round out the show.

After all, George Will is starting to look a little crotchety these days, like he just found your ball in his yard and he doesn't want to give it back. More importantly, when it came to last year's impeachment scandal, all five regulars seemed to fall over each other seeing who could attack President Clinton the most viciously, making some observers wonder whether the whole bunch had lost touch with the public, most of whom, after all, stubbornly supported Clinton right through to the bitter end.

But Kristol, at least, brought a level of reporting to the round-table that is going to be missed. Just this past Sunday, for example, he made a guest appearance on Bob Schieffer's "Face the Nation," and scooped the competition with news of Elizabeth Dole's impending endorsement of George W. Bush.

But ABC's Donaldson and Roberts, who have been co-hosts since 1996, aren't going anywhere and the word from ABC is stay the course. Both Westin and new executive producer Virginia Mosely declined to comment for this column, but according to ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy, there will be no more personnel changes at "This Week." What about changes in format, structure? "You'll just to have keep watching," she said.

Well, that's what I'm paid to do. But it's hard to believe that the Sunday-morning talk show audience -- a small but fairly select group, "a good demo" in TV terms -- will keep coming back to this worn-out program. "Meet the Press" beat the pants off of "This Week" in the November sweeps, boasting a 3.4 rating to ABC's 2.4, followed by a lowly 2.1 for CBS's "Face the Nation." (Each point equals approximately one million viewers.)

Somehow, I doubt those millions of folks are suddenly going to say, 'Oh, good: one less conservative commentator to clutter up my understanding of the issues.' And while it's doubtful that Westin woke up one day after the sweeps and said, "'This Week' needs to be more liberal," it's clear that he favors the softer stories (like profiles of the candidates' wives) that the show has lately been peddling up front.

In the meanwhile, don't cry for Kristol. He has been deluged with post-holiday offerings and will appear as a guest on "Meet the Press" this Sunday. As to rumors he'll make a move to the Fox News Channel (he has already appeared on Brit Hume's show), he tells Salon: "I have a genuinely high regard for what Roger Ailes has been able to do with the Fox News Channel and I think it's up and coming. That's one reason it's tempting to be part of it. I also appreciate that broadcast is broadcast TV and cable is limited in some ways, and in a way it would be nice to combine the two."

So, look for more Kristol in more places in the coming months. Though there also are rumors of a possible CNN offer, it would be impolitic of him to insult Fox owner Rupert Murdoch by going over to the Ted side. (Murdoch subsidizes the Weekly Standard.) "I want to think a little about what I want to do," said Kristol. "My main job is the magazine. Maybe I'll just freelance for a while."

It would be a pity if all conservative voices were ghettoized on TV, rounded up and left to Fox and a few pockets of MSNBC, leaving George Will alone to loom dyspeptically over the networks. The mix of viewpoints on the political shows, though often discordant to the point of parody, is what keeps viewers awake and coming back for more.

What Russert has wrought in his climb to the top is an expectation on the part of the audience that they may actually be getting close to the truth, occasionally, on his show.

Somewhere "This Week," must have lost its way, because what it offers up is something considerably more illusory.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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