Amanpour: A Surprise - And a Risk

ABC passes over traditional choices with new "This Week" host selection

By Michael Calderone
|  Friday, Mar 19, 2010  |  Updated 12:43 AM CDT
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Amanpour Risky Choice as Sunday Talk Host

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In choosing Christiane Amanpour to host “This Week,” ABC defied the Sunday show conventions that have resulted in a succession of hosts who were male political journalists steeped in Washington culture.

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In choosing Christiane Amanpour to host “This Week,” ABC defied the Sunday show conventions that have resulted in a succession of hosts who were male political journalists steeped in Washington culture.

Passing over more traditional choices such as its own correspondents, Terry Moran, Jake Tapper and Jonathan Karl, ABC hired a woman who made her reputation in dangerous war zones for CNN. That’s also a much different resume than the man Amanpour succeeds - George Stephanopoulos, the political operative-turned-journalist who cut his teeth as a congressional staffer and working in the Clinton White House.

Still, Amanpour insists that “This Week” itself will not be radically different with her on board, stressing in an interview with POLITICO that the show will continue its tradition of covering domestic politics, while also broadening its focus with more international news. One goal, she said, is to “try to make foreign news less foreign.”

Increasing foreign coverage at a time when many news organizations are scaling back abroad with a host who is not a creature of the Beltway political culture may give ABC just the kind of defining identity it needs to push “This Week” over NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and CBS’s “Face the Nation,” while keeping ahead of two relative newcomers to the Sunday show pack, “Fox News Sunday” and CNN’s “State of the “Union.”

But it’s not without risk. These shows have traditionally leaned more on politics and domestic policy, with a steady diet of Washington insiders as guests. That’s what the audience—as well as the political journalists who watch each week and look for news to write about —have come to expect.

Within the U.S. media, international stories make up less of the news hole. As a study out this week by Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism showed, the economy was the leading story of 2009, filling 20 percent of the news hole. The next biggest stories were health care and the Obama administration. Further down on the list were Afghanistan (4) Iran (6) and the Iraq War (8), and that’s despite two wars and a possible nuclear threat.

Amanpour’s Sunday show on CNN, which airs at 2 p.m., averaged just over 400,000 viewers in February, a much smaller audience than Sunday shows on the broadcast networks, according to Nielsen (she also has a daily show during the week on CNN International). “This Week” brought in over 2.2 million viewers last Sunday, placing it behind “Meet the Press” (3.04 million) and “Face the Nation” (2.5 million).

Since the death in 2008 of NBC’s Tim Russert, who as host of “Meet the Press” was a dominating presence on Sunday morning, there’s been a bit more uncertainty in the weekly ratings race.

Stephanopoulos helped narrow the gap between his show and “Meet the Press,” while jostling each week with “Face the Nation.” For that reason, it was expected that someone like Tapper, ABC’s White House correspondent, would fill a similar role in trying to catch up with “Meet the Press” and its host, David Gregory.

During its search for Stephanopoulos’s successor, ABC also reached out to PBS host Gwen Ifill, the much-respected “Washington Week” host who’s previously been on the short-list for Sunday show jobs on NBC and CNN. The choice of Ifill would have meant the network did not plan on straying far from tradition on “This Week,” which was created by legendary network boss Roone Arledge in 1981, and first hosted by David Brinkley.

In a memo to the staff, ABC News President David Westin addressed the question of whether “This Week” would change the show’s DNA. “We will continue to provide the best in interviews and analysis about domestic politics and policies,” Westin said. “But now we will add to that an international perspective.”

Similarly, Ian Cameron, executive producer of “This Week,” described hiring Amanpour as adding something to the show’s mix of stories rather than taking anything away. He also said “there’s almost too much emphasis” on the fact Amanpour comes from an international reporting background as opposed to politics.

“The reality is that we’re a news program on Sunday mornings and we do what we think is most important, most newsy, and I think going forward we will break from the bond—if you will—of just looking at domestic politics,” said Cameron, adding that they have “an opportunity to look beyond the Beltway and beyond our borders”

Now CNN’s chief international correspondent, Amanpour, 52, has passed through many border crossings over the years. She first went overseas in 1990, shortly before the Gulf War, and spent much of the next 18 years reporting in some tough places: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Somalia, Rwanda and the Balkans.

Tom Johnson, who served as CNN president from 1990 until 2001, described Amanpour as a “brilliant journalist” who “served in the most dangerous war zone assignments of the past two decades.” He recalled once when Serb military leaders targeted her for assassination and the network was forced to pull her out of Sarajevo. 

“If she goes to ABC, she will bring an extraordinary record with her,” Johnson said before the official announcement. “It is very encouraging that ABC is committed to international reporting, especially at a time when many newspapers and other news organizations are dismantling their international coverage.”

Johnson added that by heading to Washington, Amanpour “is moving into what may be the ultimate combat zone.”

When Amanpour arrives at ABC in August, after taking a few months between gigs and attending to some overseas commitments, the atmosphere will certainly be combative. The 2010 midterm races will be in full swing.

It’s an unlikely moment for a host lacking experience in covering Washington politics to take the reins, and another reason the hire struck some staffers as coming out of left field.

Within ABC News, according to sources, there’s been speculation that executives on the West Coast – not those in Washington and New York - influenced the selection of Amanpour. Sources say that Bob Iger, chief executive of ABC-parent Disney, and his wife Willow Bay may have played a role in getting Amanpour in the mix. Bay, who previously worked at ABC and CNN, did not respond to request for comment.

However, Amanpour said that ABC tried to approach her in the past, even during the days when Arledge ran the network. Westin made that point in his memo.

“More than once over the years we've talked with Christiane about her joining us in one position or another,” Westin said. Until now, it wasn't the right time or the right fit.”

Political reporting chops aside, there’s also concern whether Amanpour, who grew up outside the United States — she was born in London, raised in Tehran, and speaks with an accent —will find success with viewers across the country. Her lifestyle also seems to reflect the coasts more than flyover country. Last month, Amanpour’s apartment overlooking Central Park, which she shares with her husband James Rubin, a former Clinton administration official, was featured in the New York Times Magazine.

And over the years, Amanpour has faced criticism from conservatives who accuse her of injecting liberal views into her coverage. The Daily Beast—hardly a right-leaning organ—included her on its recent list of the top 25 journalists on the left.

Amanpour balks at such pigeonholing.

“My entire career has been based on fact-based reporting,” she said. “I am neither political, nor ideological. I believe in real reporting and facilitating a broader conversation.”

Cameron said that “you mention Christiane’s name to anybody and there’s instant recognition,” while adding that she’ll bring to ABC “her passion and talents.”

“I don’t see why it can’t work out on Sunday mornings,” he said.

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