Why the Sunday shows still matter

By the time even news junkies get to Sunday morning, there can be a plaintive need for a mental health break. There may be physiological limits on how many times they can watch Sen. Lindsey Graham, among others in our public life, in a given week.

But the three stalwarts of broadcast television — ABC's "This Week," CBS' "Face the Nation" and NBC's "Meet the Press" — endure amid the obvious media fragmentation and may have cause for a certain self-congratulation amid via a vaguely surprising Harvard study.

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy’s new "Report on Network Sunday Morning Talk Show Content and Ratings, Comparing 1983, 1999, and 2015" suggests that serious discussion of policy may get the shows more viewers than jabber about politics.

Indeed, "The primary takeaway is that the Sunday morning interview shows potentially could improve their audience ratings by rebalancing their interviews to feature greater proportions of substantive policy content, relative to process-oriented, purely political content, and those types of interview guests who tend to provide more of the former relative to the latter."

Really? Truly? Should one run to the nearest outpost of the Brookings Institution or American Enterprise Institute and break out the champagne (or at least the inexpensive chardonnay and cheddar cheese cubes preferred at their lecture-cocktail gatherings)?

As Matthew Baum, a policy and communications expert at Harvard, concedes in the report and in a phone chat, the metrics aren't infallible. In particular, the report dissects relevant ratings data and content breakdown from three of the past 34 years (1983, 1999 and 2015) and doesn't include several relevant trends in news coverage, notably the rise of social media.

That stipulated, "Several clear, and arguably somewhat surprising, patterns emerged," he writes. "Perhaps most noteworthy is that substantive coverage of politics and public policy issues, rather than coverage of the process of policymaking or the politics surrounding it, consistently appears to earn the highest ratings for the Sunday shows, as well as, for the most part, being most likely to influence the subsequent week’s news agenda."

And, by the report's measure of influence on "the news agenda" (largely how many times guests get mentioned in subsequent stories), "the Sunday morning talk shows have not lost their capacity to influence the news agenda," as the report put it. Even amid the helter-skelter confusion wrought by social media, the shows survive quite nicely.

As even the casual viewer might recognize, the three shows do bend to fashion and seeming ratings imperatives. It cites "the overwhelming dominance of Donald Trump in driving these shows’ agenda setting influence in 2015 — well before Trump emerged as a likely winner of the Republican primary campaign — seems disproportionate to the candidates’ position in the race."

The Trump, Trump, Trump (and more Trump) saturation has been well documented and will inspire hundreds of future journalism school papers. It prompted the thesis that the mere quantity contributed to his victory in the Republican primaries.

Interestingly, Republicans have long outpaced Democrats as Sunday guests. Not quite as interesting is the obvious reality that White males dominate. This also asserts that there's a greater emphasis on issues deemed preferred by men or women.

In our phone chat, Baum was candid in cautioning against overstating the report's thrust. The folks watching the shows are politics junkies, so he figured they'd enjoy the horse race discussions, and those related to how something might play in Congress, to policy.

But policy, such as what exactly a particular law or piece of legislation is and who might be impacted, does better than he figured.

"It's a bit of a surprise,” he said. “It doesn't tell me up is down. I always figured that journalists aren't stupid when they cover the horse race half the time. Politics and process are easier things to turn into conflict and drama."

But if you're George Stephanopoulos, John Dickerson and Chuck Todd, now you have a bit of ammunition if your bosses might every once in awhile roll their eyes over what they deem a topic or segment proposal more fit for C-SPAN.

Yes, if Harvard's implication has merit, occasionally there may be limits on the interest (at least beyond the network's promotions folks) in that exclusive interview with a predictably combative Kellyanne Conway.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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