The Digital Journalist
Sunday Morning Suits

by Ron Steinman

September 2006

Let me warn you about this column on the Sunday morning TV talk shows. It will be a composite. It will be impressionistic. It is a look at what we once called the ghetto of news. In the days before the explosion of cable, few people watched Sunday morning news shows. The networks designated Sunday morning for dull talk to satisfy FCC regulations about fair and balanced public service programming. These shows, mainly "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation," rarely if ever a produced a second day story. The shows existed to fill airtime.

What took place then makes today's talk shows seem brilliant in comparison. But they are not. Today Sunday morning talk shows are the same, except that modern technology allows the producers to take the viewer anywhere in the world with relative ease. Yet, there is nothing unique about them. Cut from the same cloth, using the same template, as if for jeans or dresses sold at Wal-Mart, or a flea market, they are copycats. Worse, originality is beyond them and the various news networks do not seem to care. The shows are still soporific, boring, and usually less than informative. I have difficulty imagining anyone sitting and religiously watching these shows. Except for a few people – and we can probably count them on one hand – these shows are not appointment television. In the last few months I steeled myself over many Sundays to watch when I could, usually a few minutes at a time, all these shows. They are establishment to the core and thus unreliable. Usually simplistic, they are patently dishonest in their approach to real news. These shows are not good for journalism as practiced on TV. Just because something is part of the show business of news and has been around for a long time, in no way means it has value.

Comparing content on any given Sunday is a fool's errand, so that is not what I will do. These shows are usually more about the anchor, or host, or whatever we call him or her, than they are about content. Style, unfortunately, does dictate content on Sunday morning.

The shows are each templates one for the other. Guests assemble in the Green Room. They drink coffee, maybe an orange juice and a piece of fattening pastry. The men are clean-shaven. The women well-turned-out in Sunday morning, churchgoing best. In each of these shows after the initial newsmaker interview or interviews, the anchor then assembles his well-dressed, well-bred panel to comment on the news of the week.

The guest and the interviewer, including the panel, are usually on good behavior, probably because each fears the producers will not ask him or her back. No one shouts as some do on a number of cable roundtables. People are polite. Most of the time they allow each other to complete his or her sentences without interruption. Being ecumenical and shedding light instead of heat is the goal of these shows. For the most part, they do it well, meaning their appearance comes off, shall I say, clean. However, there is never any heat, and rarely any light. These shows are predictable and dull, as I said, dominated by the establishment of which they are a part. Rarely is anyone on any panel from outside the Beltway, meaning anywhere but from the center of Washington, D.C. After watching many of these shows over many weeks, it is clear to me the panel, the anchor and the guests are out of touch with the rest of America. The Beltway is the same as a child in a bubble protected from contamination in the real world. It is as if America is somewhere out there in the "great middle" where information is sparse and where other opinions hardly count, except on Election Day. This is very sad.

Close your eyes. Now sit back, listen to each member of any panel any Sunday morning. If you did not realize it before, you might find it amazing that they sound alike. They speak with the same cadence. They pause the same way. They, like most people who live in professional Washington, have come from somewhere else, yet they all manage to sound the same. In time, if they are journalists, they lose their identity and develop what I call, "Washington newsspeak," a language created by and perpetuated by those who work and reside full-time inside the Beltway. These people are not unique to our profession. In an age increasingly under the influence of copycat journalism, the Sunday morning shows want to be the same. It is copycat programming to the highest degree.

The networks, whether broadcast or cable, love these programs because they cost almost nothing to produce. The studio and crew are in place anyway. Perhaps the network sets up a camera at an outside location. The network sometimes provides car service to get a guest to the studio. Only the anchors and the small production staff are on the payroll. These are miniscule expenses compared to normal news shows. Commercials are plentiful and advertisers line up for an opportunity to pitch their products. Sunday morning is no longer the niche it once was.

The so-called "newsmakers" who appear are looking for exposure, as if being an elected official or a high appointee in government, they do not get enough. Each of these officials has a staff devoted to getting their person heard. It takes very little, if any pressure, to book a Sunday morning guest. If the guest is in the news, more than one show will book the person. Sometimes in an effort to accommodate the guest's availability because of his or her popularity, they arrange to tape the interview before the show airs. The audience does not know this but watch for a telltale notice on some part of the screen that says "Taped Earlier." Of course, controversial figures are difficult to book because they usually have something to hide. It makes no sense to expose oneself in front of millions of people if the result is grief.

Note, too, the "newsmaker" makes news when he or she decides. Guests who agree to appear rarely slip up, loose their cool, or trip up and say anything that will get them into trouble. They know too well that other media are watching carefully for anything said out of character, anything that has some nuanced change in position that will immediately hit the wires, television, and, assuredly, the maw of the Internet. Newspapers and Web sites as well as bloggers will often pick up the story and run with it.

Despite their publicly stated high purpose, these shows have a simpler purpose. Publicity. A rather self-serving endeavor. But something that has existed since the start of TV. "Newsmakers," even if they do not make news, which they usually do not, often live for a line or two in a newspaper story the following Monday morning, or, if lucky, a clip on the late Sunday night local news. Occasionally the guests do make news, and when they do, gold stars follow. That's show business, as the saying goes, and the way of the world of TV news. It is part of the culture of news and will never change, particularly today with competition in the media so intense.

I have no solution how to change anything on Sunday morning. Hosts and producers should be gentle, but firm. If an interviewer insults the guest with tough questions, more power to the program. If that guest does not want to return so quickly, we should not bemoan the loss. It is time the gloves came off and the Sunday morning talk shows became more than a showcase for good grooming.

It is sad to think people believe they will get more from a talking head on TV Sunday morning than by reading a thoughtful piece in their newspaper or in a magazine. This is the success of Sunday morning. It is nothing new. Always was in the past; always will be in the future.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.