WASHINGTON — ABC executives, worried about sinking ratings as Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts fall behind Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" on NBC, are starting to overhaul the once-mighty "This Week."
The first victim is Bill Kristol, a conservative presence for three years on the shoot-the-breeze Sunday round-table. The Weekly Standard editor taped his last show Wednesday after being told that his contract would not be renewed.
The axing of Kristol comes three months after the departure of the show's executive producer, Dorrance Smith, who, like Kristol, worked in the Bush White House. Several sources confirmed that contrary to the public announcement at the time, Smith was forced out by ABC News President David Westin, who has had an increasingly strong hand in the program.
Smith said Kristol "added a much-needed different perspective from a conservative viewpoint, which I don't think they have any interest in trying to fill. They're tone-deaf when it comes to political evenhandedness. . . . Rather than being journalistically honest, they're much more comfortable with people who share viewpoints closer to their own," he said of ABC management.
Westin said Wednesday that "over time we have an obligation to our viewers to make sure we present both sides of any issue." While no one's previous employment should be held against him, he said, "we shouldn't have executive producers who have identifiable alliances either way."
Smith, a friend of Linda Tripp from their days in the Bush White House, has told friends that he believes ABC management was displeased with some of the reporting he helped provide during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The larger problem for Westin and ABC is that "This Week" has lost 25% of its audience since David Brinkley, who founded the Washington-based program with Smith in 1981, retired three years ago. During the November ratings sweeps, NBC's "Meet the Press" averaged 4.1 million viewers, "This Week" had 2.8 million and CBS' "Face the Nation" was closing in with 2.5 million.
"The program is not where we want it to be," Westin acknowledged. "That's not anybody's fault on the program."
ABC had asked Kristol to stay on through January and make occasional appearances after that, but he told management Wednesday that he had fulfilled his contract, which expires next week. Kristol was added at the same time as George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton White House aide whose contract was recently renewed. The pair provided Democratic and Republican voices along with those of Donaldson, Roberts and George Will; Kristol was the first panelist to argue strongly that John McCain and Bill Bradley were serious challengers for their parties' presidential nominations.
"I've enjoyed every Sunday of it," Kristol said. "I wish Sam and Cokie and the guys here in Washington all the best."
While he is "disappointed" at getting dumped, Kristol said, "I'm also looking forward to exploring other opportunities where I think there's a real commitment to covering politics intensively and seriously." He is in negotiations with Roger Ailes, president of Fox News, which, like the Weekly Standard, is owned by Rupert Murdoch.
The change in the gabfest segment is surprising because audience research consistently confirms its popularity. "The round-table is the money part of the show," Smith said. "People will fast-forward through their videotapes to watch the round-table. It's what distinguishes 'This Week' from its competition."
ABC insiders say Westin had no problem with Kristol but felt that the round-table was too crowded with five people, making it hard for individual voices to be heard.
Current and former staffers say Westin has increasingly called the shots at "This Week" from New York, as evidenced by his decision to buy out the remainder of Smith's contract. While he named senior producer Virginia Moseley to succeed Smith, Westin is chiefly in charge of fixing the program.
Part of the reason for the ascendancy of "Meet the Press" is the extensive preparation by Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, who is known for tough interviews that he generally conducts by himself. Several ABC staffers noted that while Russert was aggressively moderating a debate between Bradley and Vice President Al Gore last Sunday, "This Week" was airing an interview with George W. Bush's mother, Barbara, and his wife, Laura.
"I don't see going soft as a direction to take the program," Westin said. "It's fundamentally a public policy program. Our goal is to present it in the most intelligent way possible with something out of the ordinary, something surprising."