After years of toiling in the shadows of a giant, ABC's Sunday morning public affairs program, "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," is finally beginning to step into the spotlight once exclusively occupied by NBC's "Meet the Press."
It's the economy, stupid, plus "This Week's" round table has been called pretty smart.
"Meet the Press" has long been the dominant program, so far this season attracting about 4.3 million viewers each week. In recent years, it had attracted nearly double the audience of the second-place "This Week."
But the NBC show began slipping in the ratings after the unexpected loss of Tim Russert, who died in June. Tom Brokaw filled in for several months before the network named its chief White House correspondent, David Gregory, as the show's anchor in December.
The changes may have displaced some Russert loyalists. Meanwhile, Stephanopoulos' show, along with CBS' "Face the Nation" with Bob Schieffer and "Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace," have benefited from not only the turmoil but also the larger audiences tuning in to the Sunday morning news shows in the last year, drawn by an interest in the presidential election, the early days of Barack Obama's administration and the collapsing economy.
"This Week" is averaging 3.3 million viewers per week this season, 20% more than in the previous season. Last week, the audience gap between the two shows was just 360,000 viewers -- the smallest in more than a decade.
"People have found themselves free to sample Stephanopoulos, and after all of those years in second place, he had time to get his show right," said Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, an online site that tracks network news. Another distinction, he said, is that Stephanopoulos' "round table is the best forum on Sunday mornings."
Last fall, Stephanopoulos recognized the enormity of the financial crisis, which in November led ABC to hire Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times op-ed columnist, to join the round table.
When he's on, Krugman mixes it up with other Big Brains, including longtime conservative commentator George Will, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Stephanopoulos.
The in-depth policy debates play well with the upscale and well-educated viewers, as well as Washington insiders and political junkies, who faithfully tune in to these Sunday morning shows.
"What we really strive for is to have people who know what they are talking about. No one is faking it," Stephanopoulos said during an interview last week at USC, where he received a Walter Cronkite Award for his reporting during the presidential campaign.
Stephanopoulos, 48, has worked more than a quarter century in Washington. He was a congressional staffer and a top advisor to President Clinton.
He joined ABC as a journalist more than a decade ago and in 2002 he took over as anchor of "This Week."
At first, he suffered from a public perception that, even with his change in hats, he might continue to be a tool of Clinton and the Democratic Party. But over the years, questions about his objectivity have largely faded. And he has become more comfortable in the role. An important lesson, he said, came a few years ago after scrapping the round-table discussion in a retooling of the show's format. "Then we realized that we were sacrificing the franchise," he said. "The round table was one of the major reasons why people came to us."
Now, he sometimes expands the length of the discussion to as much as 28 minutes, longer than the interview segment.
Several years ago, he added two signature features: "In Memorium," to salute noteworthy people who died during the previous week, including members of the U.S. military; and "Sunday Funnies" -- clips of the best riffs of TV comedians, because "a lot of young people get their news from those shows," he said.
Four years ago, Stephanopoulos could have lost "This Week." ABC News President David Westin offered the show to Ted Koppel to try to keep the longtime "Nightline" anchor at the network. Westin said last week that, though it was important to try to retain Koppel, who defected to another network, "I am very happy with the way it worked out."
Westin said that Stephanopoulos, who also serves as ABC's chief Washington correspondent, has always been "intelligent, very disciplined and curious," but that in the last couple of years, he has made the show his own.
"He has grown in his confidence and his command of the television," Westin said.
"He has always had a command of the material, but his interviewing skills have gotten so much stronger. He also has a way of steering the conversation of the round table without coming across as overbearing. George is very deft at that."
Stephanopoulos has noticed other changes too.