[updated] Christiane Amanpour's challenge: Broadening 'This Week' as ABC News shrinks
By turning to Christiane Amanpour -- one of the world’s most recognized journalists -- as host of “This Week,” ABC hopes to send the message that Peter Jennings’ legacy endures even as the network is slashing its news staff and scaling back foreign operations.
Jennings, who died in 2005, projected a sophisticated worldview developed during extensive overseas reporting assignments. Amanpour brings with her similar international sensibilities.
Amanpour, who was born in London and grew up in Iran, has worked at CNN for 27 years, including the last 20 as a foreign correspondent, traveling to such strife-torn countries as Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan. Amanpour, in an interview, said she intended to increase the focus on foreign affairs on the Sunday-morning program. Previous host George Stephanopoulos made his insider's knowledge of Washington the show's hallmark.
The challenge for Amanpour will be to strike a balance between international and domestic policy debates while continuing to satisfy an audience that has come to expect large doses of inside-the-Beltway skinny and analysis of U.S. politics. If Amanpour can attract new viewers -- those who normally don’t tune in to the Sunday-morning news shows -- it would be a boost for ABC News, which has lost ratings momentum for some of its key programs.
“I would be disappointed if Christiane would become another Washington insider,” said Charles Bierbauer, a former top correspondent at CNN and ABC who is now the dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications. “Christiane could very well be the one to infuse a broader perspective -- and that wouldn’t hurt us.”
"This Week's" perspective for years has been squarely on the nation's capital. The show is produced from the Newseum in Washington, with a view from the set overlooking the U.S. Capitol. Amanpour plans to take over “This Week” in August, staying at CNN through the end of April.
“We are much more accustomed to seeing Christiane wearing a bush jacket and in a market in Baghdad or Bosnia,” Bierbauer said, rather than leading a round-table discussion in a studio. “But we are all capable of making these adjustments -- we’re journalists.”
In announcing her hiring, ABC News President David Westin said: “All of us know how much the international and the domestic have come to affect one another – whether it’s global conflict, terrorism, humanitarian crises or the economy. And our international reporting has long been a hallmark of ABC News, part of the legacy Peter Jennings left for us.”
Westin hinted to Washington insiders that, though their importance to the show would not be diminished, “This Week” would attempt to depart from the worn format of left/right political debates.
“Christiane will bring the international and the domestic together,” Westin said. “Our audience has come to us for years to see differing points of views expressed in intelligent and compelling ways; now the different points of view will be expanded beyond partisan politics alone.”
The question will be whether ABC will continue to retrench, and if so, how that might affect “This Week” and its international aspirations. Amanpour said she expected to report from overseas “when it is appropriate,” even though ABC has closed foreign bureaus.
ABC, owned by Walt Disney Co., last month said it would cut as much as 25% of its news-division staff -- up to 400 employees.
“Look, it’s a very painful time, there is no doubt about that,” Amanpour said. “But I am committed to doing serious journalism and ABC, over the years, has waved the flag of journalism. If I can continue that, then I will be proud.”
Amanpour, 52, will be the first woman to be the solo anchor of a network Sunday news program. [updated 12:20 p.m.: Amanpour will not be the first woman to solo anchor a Sunday show. Lesley Stahl claims that distinction, moderating "Face the Nation" on CBS from 1983 to 1991.] After David Brinkley left “This Week” in 1996, Cokie Roberts co-anchored with Sam Donaldson. In 2002, Stephanopoulos took over and during the last 18 months made significant gains against the longtime juggernaut for NBC, “Meet the Press.” But ratings for "This Week" have slipped in recent weeks.When asked if she would change her style, Amanpour said, “I don’t think there is any currency to me changing my style. The answer is no. I can’t be anything other than myself.”
-- Meg James
Photo: Neilson Barnard / Getty Images