Five years ago, just off a bout from cancer, Bob Schieffer was set to retire from CBS’s “Face the Nation.” That never stuck, and now he’s doubling his workload.
Starting Sunday, the public affairs program expands to an hour. Vice President Joe Biden, whom Schieffer interviewed Thursday in Milwaukee, is the featured guest. Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are also booked.
With a presidential campaign under way, it’s an attention-getting time for the Sunday morning shows. The landscape changed already this year when George Stephanopoulos returned to the helm of ABC’s “This Week” in January.
Shortly after Schieffer started as host two decades ago, he said his competitor, the late Tim Russert of “Meet the Press,” went to his NBC bosses to urge that the show be expanded to an hour. Give me three months, Russert said, and if the ratings don’t improve we’ll go back to a half-hour.
They never looked back, and Russert dominated Sunday mornings until his death in 2008.
“Tim was the best of the best,” Schieffer said. “But the fact of the matter is what propelled them to No. 1 is they went to an hour and they were the first to do that. When they did that, it left us in the dust.”
Schieffer repeatedly nagged his bosses to follow suit. He made the same speech when Jeff Fager and David Rhodes took over last year, not expecting much. When they gave the go-ahead, Schieffer said, “I nearly fainted.”
Ratings and election news figured in the timing. “Meet the Press,” now with David Gregory, averaged 3.3 million viewers during the first three months of the year. “Face the Nation” was a close second with 3.09 million, the Nielsen company said. “This Week” had 2.53 million and “Fox News Sunday” averaged 1.15 million. “Face the Nation” is the only broadcast to see its ratings improve over last year.
Betsy Fischer, “Meet the Press” executive producer, said she’s all for more Sunday morning TV time.
“When we went to an hour 20 years ago, I remember the big advantage was that it gave us much more flexibility in programming the show,” Fischer said. “I suspect it will be beneficial to CBS in that respect as well.”