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'Intercom' for Capital : Sunday TV Shows Play Subtle Role

October 27, 1985|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

The point National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane was making about the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty hardly seemed the stuff to make the viewers at home leap from their Barcaloungers.

McFarlane's appearance Oct. 6 on NBC's "Meet the Press," however, floored defense experts in Washington and throughout the NATO alliance. To insiders, McFarlane seemed to be embracing a new hard-line position by asserting that "research, development and testing" into the Reagan Administration's "Stars Wars" missile defense system did not violate the treaty.

The prime ministers of Germany and Britain sent emotional letters of protest to the White House. Members of Congress were irate. President Reagan even had to preside over an Oval Office showdown between McFarlane and Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

Inside Dialogue

The episode typifies the subtle role of what is perhaps the most curious trio of programs in American television, the Sunday morning interview shows.

Although often dull and notoriously low-rated, the three network Sunday interview programs have survived longer than any other shows on television. The originator, "Meet the Press," has run continuously for 38 years.

The reason is that the shows have become a part of the inside dialogue of government, a place where politicians come to deliver messages to each other, end feuds or clarify policy--knowing well that political Washington, if not the rest of the country, is watching.

Those invited to appear also know that what is uttered on the shows on Sunday echoes in the political shop talk of the Senate cloakroom and Oval Office on Monday. And they know that even the most arcane shows still make Monday morning headlines of newspapers hungry for weekend news.

No Pressure for Ratings

"They are a kind of intercom or PA system between political groups in this city," said David Brinkley, the host of ABC's "This Week."

"An in-house political newsletter," NBC News Vice President Tim Russert called them.

The networks recently have tried to broaden the shows' appeal, with varied success. However, it is the shows' influence over people with influence that brings the networks coveted prestige and makes the Sunday interview program as sacrosanct as anything can be in television.

"We have never come under any pressure for ratings whatsoever," said Karen Sughreu, executive producer of CBS News' "Face the Nation." "We were put on the air as a showcase, and we will be on forever."

It doesn't hurt, either, that the shows are inexpensive to produce and that they air in a time slot for which the networks have discovered no other kind of programming that would attract many more viewers.

Sometimes the most significant statements on the show are aimed at just one or two people. Last summer, for instance, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas used a "Meet the Press" broadcast to send "little messages" to two political leaders.

The President had returned to the White House the previous day from cancer surgery, and, in his absence, Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan had infuriated congressional leaders during negotiations over the President's budget proposal. On the show Dole suggested--and then repeated the suggestion nine times--that the President "step into the breach" by making conciliatory phone calls to members of the Senate. Before the program had even aired in most parts of the country, the President, who was watching, was on the phone.

Next, Dole made an oblique peace signal in a growing feud over the budget with Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) by describing their differences in muted terms. The next day Kemp called Dole, saying he appreciated the restrained approach and offering a truce.

The shows' impact was not always so subtle. In the first years of "Meet the Press"--launched on NBC-TV in 1947 by Lawrence E. Spivak, editor of H.L. Mencken's "American Mercury," and Martha Rountree, a Washington journalist--the show was a forum for major announcements, for introducing new political figures to the nation or even for launching presidential bids.

Whitaker Chambers issued his first public charge that Alger Hiss was a communist on "Meet the Press." Dwight D. Eisenhower's first presidential campaign was launched in October, 1950, when Republican Party leader Thomas E. Dewey first threw his support to the general on the show. Democratic Party bosses were similarly persuaded to make Adlai E. Stevenson the Democratic nominee in 1952 after watching the Illinois governor demonstrate his poise on the show.

Spivak, who remained producer of the show for 30 years, had the power to rule with fierce independence. He could disdain press aides and personally call those he wanted to appear--and they usually accepted. In one memorable phone call, he even turned down President Lyndon B. Johnson's personal efforts to influence the choice of panelists and guests for a show during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

Format Never Varied

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