More People Watching Sunday Shows—NBC Still Leads, Fox Slips

Whatever the reason, more Americans are spending part of their Sundays in front of the TV watching talking heads talk about the news.

By: Harry Jaffe

Has Bob Schieffer gained gravitas on Face the Nation because he hosts CBS Evening News during the week? Have Tim Russert’s pugnacious interviews boosted Face the Nation’s ratings? Is a more serious George Stephanopolous attracting viewers to his Sunday show on ABC? Or maybe continuing troubles in Iraq and elsewhere are upping interest in news and politics.

Whatever the reason, more Americans are spending part of their Sundays in front of the TV watching talking heads talk about the news.

An average 12.7 million viewers watched the five main Sunday talk shows in February, up from 12.1 million in February 2005.

On the flip side of that upward trend is Fox News Sunday. Its February ratings were down 10 percent from a year ago.

One winner is ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos, which rose 5 percent in total viewers, but the network was quick to point out that ratings jumped 29 percent in the coveted 25–54 age group.

“We have more of a mix,” says executive producer Kathy O’Hearn. “It’s more modern than just interviews. We are finally getting some traction.”

The big dog is still NBC’s Meet the Press, with 4.5 million viewers each week. Face the Nation on CBS is still second, with 3.3 million. This Week is drawing closer with 2.7 million viewers.

Fox’s news program ranks fourth with 1.5 million viewers; CNN’s Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer is fifth with 615,000.

Ratings comparing this February’s viewership to the same month in 2005 show that NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation, and CNN’s Late Edition each saw increases in eyeballs.

In total viewers (P2+ in ratings jargon), Meet and Face both rose 8 percent; This Week went up 5 percent; Late Edition increased 11 percent.

Fox News Sunday was the only one to lose viewers, dropping from 1.65 million in February 2005 to 1.49 million last month.

Fox is considered to have a conservative bent, so there’s the question: Is the Fox ratings decline related to the Bush administration’s decline in popularity?

Each week the Sunday-show PR machines pump out ratings reports, especially if they have something to crow about. Lately it’s been ABC’s turn.

Stephanopoulos’s hourlong presentation begins with a news-based feature or two, then moves to the standard panel format. Stephanopoulos moderates a semiregular crew of George Will, Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, and Fareed Zakaria; for spice it will add the New York Times’s David Brooks on the right and Katrina vanden Heuvel from the Nation on the left.

But ABC fills the last part of its show with features like monologues by celebrities, such as George Clooney or Stephen Colbert; “Sunday Funnies,” a review of the best late-night bits; and “In Memoriam,” about the death of a famous or interesting person.

“It’s a little different,” says O’Hearn. “We’re fine-tuning the formula.”