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How Sunday Morning Political Talk Shows Have Maintained Their Relevance

By Heather Mahoney | October 30, 2018 | Culture

Sunday morning political talk shows remain resilient in a world of streaming, sound bites and supercharged news cycles.

stephanopoulos.jpgABC News chief anchor and political correspondent George Stephanopoulos returned to This Week in 2012.

Approximately 2.4 million viewers tune in any given Sunday to watch top political officials and newsmakers sort through the week’s happenings. Meet the Press, Face the Nation, This Week, Fox News Sunday and State of the Union continue to digest and analyze the most important political questions of our time. The two longest-running shows in U.S. history, 70 years each, respectively, are Meet the Press and the CBS Evening News. Face the Nation came just a few years later.

“The mission hasn’t changed but how the mission is conducted has,” says Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd. He believes the oversaturation of news and information has made the Sunday shows even more necessary. “Viewers look to us to sort out the intensity of what happened during a given week, sometimes within 24 hours,” he tells us, adding, “It’s important for viewers to know we are talking to you and with you, not at you or above you.”

The show must go on—every Sunday. No pressure. Preparing, researching and bookings present constant challenges. Every host we spoke with reiterated a need to expand teams in order to keep up with hourly story changes. “Diversity of ideology is really needed at this time that America is so divided,” says CNN’s Jake Tapper, host of State of the Union. “I think the best we can all do is try to build reputations of fairness and make sure people respect who we are and what we do as we try to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this very challenging environment.” He believes that is getting harder to do as media comes under attack. “The challenge is we are in a time where facts are being discounted and the very concept of empirical truth is being degraded more than I’ve ever seen it,” says Tapper.

brennan.jpgFormer CBS News senior foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Brennan was tapped to anchor Face the Nation in early 2018.

Margaret Brennan joined Face the Nation earlier this year as only the second woman to ever moderate the CBS program. Brennan tells us she tries to “separate out the interesting from the important, and then hopefully end up with editorial decisions that exclude the shiny objects that simply serve to distract.” When I ask her about coverage plans for the November midterms, the former White House correspondent responds, “There are a record number of women running and winning their party nominations at the gubernatorial, house and senate levels. That, coupled with the fact that female voters in many of these swing districts will decide the outcome of the congressional races, is fascinating to me.” Just get ready at any time to be called out on Twitter by @realDonaldTrump. “This President reacts in real time to the Sunday shows—he tweets while we are on the air, sometimes in response to things that have been said on our program—which is a totally different world than we have ever been in,” says This Week With George Stephanopoulos executive producer Jonathan Greenberger. He believes the Sunday shows are having a golden moment. “I have never seen them make more news or be more relevant than they are right now,” he tells us, adding, “I think there’s a simple answer—we have worked really hard to earn the trust of our audience.” Co-anchors George Stephanopoulos and Martha Raddatz frequently take the show on the road to diverge from the iconic roundtable format. “As important as Washington is, it’s important to get outside of the beltway,” Greenberger notes.

Left, right or somewhere in between, all hosts must navigate continually shifting headlines, partisan talking points and a fickle fan base. Chris Wallace, the face of Fox’s hard-news division, is the only person to have served as host/moderator of more than one of the major American Sunday morning political talk shows. “Working at NBC and Fox, there has been no difference,” Wallace explains during our interview. “Regardless of who you are talking to, whether it be a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat, the mission is still the same, which is to get them to express what they feel and to challenge what they are doing—not in opposition,” he says. Wallace is known for arduous interviews and pushing the envelope. “What I can do for the viewer is to challenge a guest—my job is to get them off a script and react in real time,” says Wallace.

wallace.jpgFox News Sunday host Christopher Wallace has won three Emmy Awards.

It is a brave new world for the Sunday shows. Mobile streaming, over the op distribution and social media have helped expand the shows’ content beyond terrestrial television, amplifying the dialogue like never before, sometimes even making the shows the news. Meanwhile, the president is taking to Twitter to accuse you of being the enemy of the people; there’s a multipronged transnational campaign to delegitimize truth and mainstream media; and we haven’t even begun to deal with the ramifications of deep fake technology occurring in real time. Still, with all of that, perhaps Brennan sums up the Sunday shows’ biggest ongoing challenge best as ”getting the guests to the actual point rather than the talking point within the time allotted in live TV.”