Sunday Shows Need New Faces, New Voices

Blog ››› ››› ROB SAVILLO

In the first three months of 2013, the broadcast networks' Sunday morning talk shows once again skewed strongly to the right and featured a startling lack of diversity among guests. 

For better or worse, these shows -- ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday -- occupy an elevated space in the national political discussion. This is where influential people -- like senators, representatives, presidential administration officials, Fortune 500 chief executives, and leaders of prominent non-profit organizations, for example -- get to set the terms of debate and frame the issues of the week. The shows enjoy considerably high ratings as well -- approximately 10 million weekly viewers collectively, according to recent numbers from TV Newser.

With that in mind, who the broadcast Sunday shows invite on as guests has significant implications for how discussions on major issues are framed. And once again, Republicans and conservatives have an edge over Democrats and progressives on these programs.

While our report found that elected and administration officials hosted on these shows were much more likely to be Republican than Democratic, between the lines is an even more salient point: The findings run in stark contrast to previous trends and statements from the networks themselves.

In 2007, we followed up on our initial Sunday show study, where we cataloged all of the guests on This WeekFace the Nation, and Meet the Press between 1997 and 2006 and the guests on Fox News Sunday between 2005 and 2006. In those studies, we found (figure 4.5) that Democrats outnumbered Republicans during President Bill Clinton's second term in office and that Republicans (by a significant margin) outnumbered Democrats during President George W. Bush's first term -- and that's not even counting Fox News Sunday, which has unsurprisingly leaned to the right much more strongly than the other three. Carin Pratt, then-executive producer of Face the Nationexplained:

If you take everybody from the Bush administration and label them Republicans or partisans -- we're a country at war, and when we can get someone from the administration [to be a guest on the show], like the secretary of state, then we get them. Republicans are in power. I bet you'd find the same thing during Clinton's administration.

But how would she explain the fact that Republican senators, representatives, and governors currently outnumber Democratic elected and administration officials during the first three months of President Barack Obama's second term? According to Pratt (who has since left Face the Nation), we should expect the opposite result.

And this is happening when a Democratic president is in power and when the Senate has a Democratic majority.

This disparity extended to solo interviews, where Republicans are also featured more often than Democrats. In the new report, we note that four of the top five most frequent solo-interview guests are Republicans (Senators John McCain and Mitch McConnell, former Governor Jeb Bush, and Representative Paul Ryan).

But it's also true that Republicans and conservatives overwhelmingly had the most repeat appearances overall: Conservative columnists Bill Kristol and George Will each appeared 8 times in the 13-week period. McCain, former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and conservative columnist Peggy Noonan each appeared six times. Only Juan Williams -- whom we coded as progressive for this study due to his history of being cast as the ideological opposite of conservatives on programs like CNN's now-defunct Crossfire opinion talk show -- stands among them.

Kristol and Will's spot at the top can be explained by the fact that each is a semi-regular guest on a Sunday show roundtable, Fox News Sunday and This Week, respectively. But that only raises the question of why these shows haven't booked any progressive voices as frequently as guests like Kristol and Will. (It's worth noting here that Kristol and Will were the top guests between 1997 and 2006 as well, with 230 and 489 appearances, respectively.) Time and again, you'll find panels like the one on March 17's Fox News Sunday, where lone Democratic strategist Joe Trippi faced off against Kristol and Republican strategist Karl Rove, with neutral journalist Nina Easton rounding out the panel.  

The audience reach and type of guest make the broadcast networks' Sunday shows stand out from CNN's State of the Union and MSNBC's Up and Melissa Harris-Perry. MSNBC's Sunday shows rarely host any elected or administration officials (though, it's not for a lack of trying, as former Up host Chris Hayes stated on February 22's Now with Alex Wagner that he "can't get anyone from the White House, ever, to come on [his] show, ever, ever") and both have lower ratings than the broadcast Sunday shows. 

But the larger issue beyond ideological and partisan balance is the severe lack of diversity on the broadcast Sunday shows. As we demonstrated in the new report, the broadcast shows and State of the Union each hosted white guests at least 82 percent of the time, and women were never more than 31 percent of guests. These networks can and should look toward MSNBC, whose two programs have much more diverse guest lineups.

How did Up and Melissa Harris-Perry achieve this? As Hayes told Ann Friedman of Columbia Journalism Review, he and his producers made a conscious effort to find and host people other than the same old white men we see week after week on This WeekFace the NationMeet the Press, and Fox News Sunday.

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