Look who's talking

It’s noon on a Thursday morning in July and Richard DiBella, the supervising producer of Fox News Sunday, is laboring to lock in guests for the 9 a.m. Sunday show. As DiBella and a colleague work the phones, their list of first-choice guests and topics shifts with each call.

The senator whom DiBella thought he had for a segment on Iraq has suddenly left town to tend to an ill family member. Meanwhile, the White House is making just one official available to the Sunday political talk shows this week: Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge. While domestic security is near the top of DiBella’s topic list, if he books Ridge, he’ll be sharing him with a competing show, CNN’s Late Edition. “We all hate sharing guests,” DiBella says. Another option is to go with House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who is available for the moment but, DiBella learns, is considering an invitation to do Meet the Press. The host of Fox News Sunday, Tony Snow, says he will “put in a kind word” by phone as needed, to help the bookings along. On the bright side, ABC is airing the British Open golf tournament in This Week’s time slot. That’s one less competitor for DiBella to worry about.

Each week, the producers of the five Sunday shows -- Fox News Sunday, ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press, and CNN’s Late Edition -- vie for guests who can discuss, in an informed manner, whatever the two or three hot issues happen to be. All of the shows lean toward official government voices, meaning mostly senior members of Congress and the Cabinet, who often appear on more than one Sunday program a week. The producers must perform a delicate dance: if they book guests early in the week, they are less flexible to react to late-breaking news; if they hesitate too long, a rival show will beat them to the booking. The producers for one show might make 100 calls in a week to a list of thirty prospective guests.

Carin Pratt, the executive producer of Face the Nation, likens the weekly competition to the pain of childbirth. “If you remembered it, you’d never want to do it again,” says Pratt, who has helped book Face the Nation’s guests for nearly two decades. Betsy Fischer, the executive producer of Meet the Press, seems to take the competition in stride. That may be because she produces the oldest and highest-rated show of the five. Meet the Press averaged nearly 4.4 million viewers a week during the first half of 2002, while Face the Nation and This Week had about 2.9 million each. Fox News Sunday averaged 1.3 million viewers, and Late Edition had 613,000.

Andrea DeVito, the segment producer for Fox News Sunday, compares the process to a weeklong poker game. The players monitor each other’s bookings all week, then reveal their hands Friday morning in promos that air on the Washington, D.C.-based radio station, WTOP and later in listings on the National Journal’s Hotline Web site. “The big thing every Friday is to find out for sure who got who,” DeVito says. “It’s like, ‘Show me your cards.’” On a Friday afternoon in July, Richard DiBella supplemented Fox News Sunday’s hand: following a plunge in the stock market that day, DiBella added Neil Cavuto, Fox’s business news commentator, to the lineup, to precede interviews with Tom Ridge, whom Late Edition also booked, and Senator Joseph Biden.

If the booking process is a card game, the White House is top dealer. The administration’s senior officials are among the most sought-after guests for the Sunday talk circuit. “They’d take Rice, Powell, or Rumsfeld every week if they could,” says Adam Levine, an assistant White House press secretary and the person in charge of placing Bush officials on the television programs. “And, of course, the vice president is sort of the Sunday matinee idol because he gives you everything in terms of subject matter.” While Levine says he offers top White House officials to the four broadcast networks and CNN on a rotating basis, how strictly he adheres to the rotation is a subject of debate among producers.

“They basically try to go with a rotation,” says Meet the Press’s Fischer, of the Bush White House. But also, she says, “I’m sure they think about ratings and where guests will be seen by the most viewers.” Tammy Haddad, a veteran television news producer who helped create Larry King Live, plays down the notion of a White House rotation system. “They put out who they want, when they want,” she says. “Johnny Carson at his height could never get the guests he wanted when he wanted, and it’s the same thing on Sunday morning shows.” Some producers say the Bush administration keeps a looser rotation than the Clinton White House, and makes its top officials available more often, particularly since Sept. 11. “The Bush administration is more likely to want to put people out, since September, to discuss the war effort than the Clinton administration was willing to put people out to discuss [Clinton’s] troubles,” says Face the Nation’s Pratt.

A rotation system aside, the programs are not all on equal footing in the booking game. The Sunday hosts who also do daily coverage -- like Meet the Press’s Tim Russert and Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer -- probably have a leg up going after certain guests. “Schieffer is the chief Washington correspondent for CBS,” says Fox News Sunday’s DiBella. “He’s working that story every day of the week, so he gets more face time.” A show’s format can also play in its favor, or not. For example, CNN’s Late Edition, with its global reach, airs last of the five Sunday programs -- from noon to 3 p.m. -- giving guests a chance to respond to what happened on earlier shows. “That makes CNN important and probably explains why as a cable network they are included in the rotation with the broadcast networks,” Levine says. Playing to that strength, Late Edition bills itself as “the last word in Sunday talk.” Face the Nation, meanwhile, runs just thirty minutes versus the more typical one-hour Sunday show, a fact that can work against it. “If I know there’s a show where I can have twenty-two minutes or a show where I get twelve, if a decision has to be made, you pick the twenty-two minutes,” Levine says.

Both the dealer and the players have their agendas. While producers and hosts say they strive to knock guests off their talking points, the White House still regards these shows as a prime place to spread its message. “The Sunday show is our opportunity to get beyond the sort of one-liner that the press is looking for and really explain and fully articulate our positions and policies,” Levine says. For the Sunday shows, generating news is a priority, which, in turn, is good for ratings and good for attracting future high-quality guests. “How much news you make is kind of like the holy grail for Sunday morning political shows,” says Marty Ryan, the executive producer of Fox News Sunday. The Sunday programs make headlines at a volume that the nightly news and weekday morning news shows can’t match. Fox News Sunday keeps a chart of the stories it and its competitors spawn, and all five shows are routinely referenced in top newspapers Monday morning.

To make news, of course, it is helpful to book top newsmakers. That is part of the reason the Sunday shows almost have the feel of a branch of government. Some producers say that this has been an unusual year, that they have booked the White House principals and congressional leaders more frequently since Sept. 11. Yet even in the first half of 2001, Sunday morning sometimes seemed reserved for official Washington talking to itself, with the same Cabinet officials and members of Congress making the rounds. Meet the Press’s Betsy Fischer says, “We’re very much at the mercy of the news and we’re always looking for guests in positions to influence policy. Sometimes it is a limited pool of guests. If there’s an issue we can expand outside the typical people, we certainly try to expand on it.” As examples, Fischer points to a program in March devoted to the Russian defense minister, and one in June on which the Reverend Donald Cozzens, the author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood, was a guest.

The fierce competition for the official few often leads to guests’ doing more than one program on a given Sunday, which the White House prefers. While producers grumble that it can be more difficult to get the coveted exclusive interview from the Bush administration, Levine’s view is that if he is going to ask someone to give up part of his or her Sunday, he gets more mileage by placing that person on multiple shows. “There are very few scenarios where exclusivity suits the president’s purposes,” Levine says. “It serves the networks’ purposes.” On this point, the dealer usually wins. It is still unusual, however, for a guest to do all five shows on a single Sunday -- what producers call doing “a full Ginsburg” in honor of William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer and the first guest to hit all of the shows in one day.

Liz Cox is an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

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