NEW YORK – Nine weeks since her hot launch as the host of one of the major Sunday political talk shows, Christiane Amanpour is tanking as the ratings for ABC's "This Week
" have fallen dramatically to the point that the program occasionally drops to last place among the top three.
"This Week," under host George Stephanopolous, at times hit No. 1, but usually held a strong second place in the Sunday morning talk show wars, after the perennial favorite, "Meet the Press" on NBC. But now "This Week" is winding up in third place more often than not on most Sundays. On Sunday, Sept. 19, for instance, the show not only plummeted to third place, behind "Meet the Press" and CBS's "Face the Nation," but received the lowest ratings
in the 25-54 demographic in more than seven years.
For Amanpour, this has to be a tough uphill battle. It's a bit ironic that a celebrated international journalis
t with a wealth of experience in the major hot spots of the world could find defeat in a cold television studio, as far as one could get from the deserts of Arabia and the bloody streets of Sarajevo, where at one time she commanded the attention of a global audience.
Her going to ABC to anchor a prestige program was promoted for months. The hype made sense. Amanpour, as familiar a brand as there is in TV journalism, was leaving CNN and joining one of the media's most respected news programs. She was a woman, a journalist warrior, intrepid, fearless, and exotic. She was everywhere – in the Gulf War, reporting as scuds were incoming; in Bosnia and Serbia, wearing bullet-proof vests; in Iran, her head covered, but not her instincts for the jugular.
By all rights, by all measurements, she should've been an instant hit with "This Week." She's well prepared, obviously intelligent, a tough questioner, and she has scooped outstanding exclusives with the major movers and shakers of the moment. Her interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi showed tenacity and adversarial style; her interview with Queen Raina of Jordan displayed deep understanding of the Middle East and a warmth and sympathy she rarely allows to seep out.
In the studio at the Newseum in Washington, with her round-table talking heads, she's less sure-footed. She lacks the cozy manner and hail-fellow-well-met style of the master of Sunday shows, Tim Russert, or the friendly, accommodating manner of Russert's successor, David Gregory. There's nothing cozy about her. Seated at her table, one would not dare laugh or take a poke at a fellow guest or, least of all, at the host. Her guests change from week to week, with the possible exception of George Will, to whom she is far less deferential than her predecessors. In fact, she's not deferential at all to anyone. She's polite, attentive but hardly warm. She's not "one of the boys." And there's the rub.
The Sunday political talk shows are made for and by Washington insiders. Each show has smallish audiences
compared to the viewers of scripted or reality shows. But the hundreds of thousands who watch faithfully every Sunday morning are a prized herd -- Washington insiders, news junkies, political power brokers, gamers, lobbyists, inside-the-Beltway types even when they live clear across the country.
Likewise, the hosts are insiders, guys who covered the White House and the Congress forever, who dine at the White House, who remember fun anecdotes about politicians and who know or seem to know where the bodies are buried. Tim Russert was the ultimate insider, and therefore the most successful host. David Gregory, who took over "Meet the Press" after Russert's death in 2008
and is still trying to find his own voice, comes out of the White House correspondents corps. Bob Schieffer of "Face the Nation" is an old Washington hand, respected and familiar.
Amanpour is an outsider. She's a Washington outsider, and what's more, she's an outsider in the United States. She's half Iranian, born in London,
speaks with a clipped accent that some take as affected and haughty. Others can't stand her stiff manner, pursed lips, eyeglasses that accentuate her braininess, and her habit of puncturing winding answers (except for Arianna Huffington, to whom Amanpour deferred repeatedly).
the Washington Post television critic who has bashed Amanpour from the start, calls her a "globe-trotting Fancy-Pants." Commenting on her debut, Shales said:
"It's not that Amanpour seemed personally uncomfortable or constrained in her weekend debut . . . but rather that she proved that she's miscast for the role, her highly touted global orientation coming across as inappropriate and contrived on a broadcast that for three decades has dealt primarily with domestic politics, policies and culture."
Shales is wrong, at least in part. I'm not sure that a global orientation is inappropriate on any political discussion program at a time of huge global problems that affect us domestically and the other way around. In his determination to bring Amanpour down, Shales is trying to poke at her where she lives -- in the global sphere. And that's silly. ABC surely wanted her international vision and experience, her superb knowledge of world affairs, her ease with heads of states and her access to all of them.
But she is miscast for other reasons.
She's a woman, and surely many of us might think this is a problem. She's the first woman to handle the host duties solo (Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson, familiar faces inside Washington, were co-hosts from 1996 to 2002). Women haven't fared too happily as news anchors. Katie Couric short-circuited instantly after becoming the anchor on CBS's "Evening News." Barbara Walters, who was paired with Harry Reasoner decades ago on ABC's "World News," bombed, and so did the pair of Connie Chung and Dan Rather on CBS. In other words, even when women are paired with men, they fail.
Still, defying past experience and negative prognostications, there's now a huge female success: Diane Sawyer, who became the anchor of "World News" in January 2010 and ABC's principal anchor for breaking news, election coverage, and special events. Ratings
for the week of September 20-24 show "World News" with the most total viewer growth among evening newscasts week-to-week and closing the gap with top-ranked NBC.
Like Amanpour, Sawyer is a world brand, a highly respected journalist who has covered international news, traveled the globe, interviewed the major figures of our time, reported for CBS's "60 Minutes" and "CBS Morning News" and anchored "Good Morning America" before taking on "World News."
But Sawyer is a homegrown girl, born in Kentucky,
launched her career as a weather reporter in Louisville, touched up her Southern drawl at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., and came up through the network ranks. She's not an outsider.
, writing about Amanpour's debut, said, in part: "Ms. Amanpour is not an election expert and hasn't spent her life covering Washington politics, but she is smarter than many of those who have, with a range of international experience that is hard to match. More important, she has panache and a no-nonsense briskness."
Problem is, panache and no-nonsense briskness don't seem to charm the permanent floating chattering party in Washington, and apparently does not appeal to the Sunday morning talk show audiences. Sly wink-winks, joshing elbows in the ribs, deference to insiders, to the establishment, to the media savants – that goes a long way.
Amanpour doesn't know the game or doesn't care to learn. She stays outside the sandbox. And she's not invited to play.