ABC News' hiring of Christiane Amanpour is a gamble on an untraditional star. Rebecca Dana on why she left CNN—and why Diane Sawyer backed her for the job.
ABC's raid on CNN—with Thursday's hiring of Christiane Amanpour to take over This Week—is a huge bet on a different brand of star power.
It is rare for the major networks to raid CNN; more often, CNN has been a refuge for onetime stars out of ABC, NBC and CBS. It is rarer still to elevate an anchor whose specialty is foreign reporting, for which American television viewers historically have had preciously little appetite.
But the deal brings ABC two vital assets: star-power and X chromosomes. In the tradition of his predecessor Roone Arledge, ABC News President David Westin has cultivated and shown a willingness to make big bets on stars. Where Arledge had his bunch, including Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, and Barbara Walters, Westin has his: George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer—elevating both in recent months—in addition to Robin Roberts, up-and-comer Bianna Golodryga, and now, Amanpour.
“No one, no one, will question Christiane’s gravitas,” said Connie Chung. “She has five more sets of anything than anybody else has.”
It also brings the first woman into the Sunday morning boys' club of political talk shows—replenishing the ranks of high-profile women at ABC. Recently, ABC matriarch Barbara Walters decided to end her Oscar special, signaling a cutback in her work for the network, and rising star Kate Snow recently decamped for NBC.
Indeed, Sawyer was one of Amanpour's biggest boosters inside the network, according to sources close to the anchor, advocating strongly in favor of bringing another prominent woman into ABC. During major global news stories, it will certainly be a first to have two women—an evening news anchor and a foreign-policy expert—sitting side by side on the air.
At CNN, Amanpour has stayed through more than two decades and countless job offers to go elsewhere, traveling through war zones, and winning every major broadcast journalism award in the process—a trophy appearing in countless ads for the network. She professes undying love for CNN, where she spent "26 and a half years," and her staff of 10 spent Thursday heartbroken after she told them of her decision to leave.
But the cable network's bosses haven't always lavished Amanpour with affection in return. Last year, the network gave a Sunday morning foreign-affairs show to Fareed Zakaria—and not to its star foreign correspondent. Amanpour does 30 minutes a day on CNN International, with one Sunday afternoon "compilation show," scheduled in a ratings deadzone, on the domestic network.
At a minimum, Amanpour's stewardship will move This Week blessedly away from the usual he-said-she-said patter of Sunday morning talk shows, in which the right turns up (in the person of Lindsey Graham or Mary Matalin) and jousts predictably with the left (James Carville, etc.).
"You will see less of the sort of default talking points-type programming," said the program's executive producer Ian Cameron. In a statement, Westin boasted of Amanpour's foreign-reporting credentials and predicted the show would benefit from her "international perspective."
"With Christiane, we have the opportunity to provide our audiences with something different on Sunday mornings," he said. The show will still focus on domestic politics and policies—still give ample airing to the left and right's talking points du jour—but now with an global twist. "Christiane will bring the international and the domestic together, in the interviews she does and in the roundtable over which she presides." Amanpour's deal also includes producing prime-time documentaries and providing commentary on other ABC News programs, though in the case of documentaries such promises have often failed to materalize since networks do so few of them these days (unless they have Brad Pitt).
The move comes at a difficult time for CNN. With stiff pressure on right and left from Fox News and MSNBC, it has seen a steep drop in the ratings recently. According to the latest Nielsen figures, the network lost 54 percent of its prime-time viewership in February (compared to the same month last year) and dropped to fifth place in the coveted 25-54-year-old demographic, losing in the evenings even to CNBC.
Amanpour's new home is hardly the Rock of Gibraltar. ABC recently announced a brutal "restructuring" (to use the corporate euphemism) of its newsgathering operations, firing up to a quarter of its staff and advertising lower-paying jobs for "digital reporters" to replace veterans lost in the purge. Even as the Amanpour hiring was announced, news executives were in the process of carrying out a round of sweeping layoffs.
Amanpour herself inherits a program that has slipped to third place in the weeks since Stephanopoulos decamped for Good Morning America. This past week, NBC's Meet the Press drew 3 million viewers, CBS's Face the Nation drew 2.3 million. Absent a permanent host, This Week drew 2.2 million viewers.
"Yes, it's a challenge," Amanpour said Thursday, shortly after the announcement of her hiring. "It just seemed such a unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance, to take this mission and join with this incredible tradition and bring my perspective to it, to build on it and broaden it from the perspective of engagement with the world. At ABC, I will try to do what I've always tried to do, and that is to make foreign news less foreign."
Network executives have said the DNA of This Week will remain constant—the show will still have interviews and a roundtable discussion; it will still tape in Washington, DC.
Amanpour's tall order is to bring in enough viewers to hoist This Week back into the competitive ranks. Her hiring certainly is a triumph of merit over the more cynical calculations that usually go into corporate decision-making. Whether this accomplished journalist can also draw a crowd, however, remains to be seen. Sunday morning talk-show viewers tend to be a narrow, upscale demographic, who tune in during their morning spin on the elliptical or before brunch in Georgetown to keep up with the latest Beltway wisdom.
One happy consequence of Amanpour's hiring is that it breaks one of the last remaining glass ceilings in television news. The anchor said she will use the new post to shine a light on women's issues around the world. Last weekend, Amanpour hosted a panel about rape in the Congo at The Daily Beast's Women in the World summit.
"I am extremely proud to be a woman in this role," she said. "I'm a reporter, and as a reporter, and as a host, I will be focusing on the major issues of our time, domestically and internationally. Having said that, it is true that so many women's issues and women's stories are increasingly becoming the stories of our world, whether it's here in the United States or overseas."
At least one woman was quick to applaud the hiring Thursday afternoon. In an interview with The Daily Beast, former CBS Evening News co-anchor Connie Chung praised ABC for "showing some very solid vision here, for not being trapped in the '60s, '70s, '80s, for inaugurating a new-millennium attitude." She has been rooting for Amanpour to take the job and thought it would've been "really criminal" if she'd said no.
Chung hung up and then called back immediately to add one final thought. When Katie Couric took over the CBS Evening News—and before that, when any woman ascended to a new position of prominence in the medium—there was a chorus of doubts about whether that woman possessed sufficient "gravitas" for the role.
"No one, no one, will question Christiane's gravitas," Chung said. "Ohhh no, she has five more sets of anything than anybody else has."
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.