NEW YORK (AP) - Five years ago, just off a bout from cancer, Bob Schieffer was set to retire from CBS’s “Face the Nation.” That never stuck, and now he’s doubling his workload.
Starting Sunday, the public affairs program expands to an hour. Vice President Joe Biden, whom Schieffer interviewed Thursday in Milwaukee, is the featured guest. Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are also booked.
With a presidential campaign under way, it’s an attention-getting time for the Sunday morning shows. The landscape changed already this year when George Stephanopoulos returned to the helm of ABC’s “This Week” in January.
Although the voluble Biden would seem the perfect guest for a newly expanded show, Schieffer said the move doesn’t mean all interviews will be twice as long. Rather, it offers the show a better chance to react to the news, have more guests and feature CBS correspondents Norah O’Donnell and John Dickerson more.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to see the same kind of `Face the Nation’ twice,” said Mary Hager, the show’s executive producer. “We’ve got a lot of flexibility and we’re going to take advantage of that flexibility.”
Shortly after Schieffer started as host two decades ago, he said his competitor, the late Tim Russert of “Meet the Press,” went to his NBC bosses to urge that the show be expanded to an hour. Give me three months, Russert said, and if the ratings don’t improve we’ll go back to a half-hour.
They never looked back, and Russert dominated Sunday mornings until his death in 2008.
“Tim was the best of the best,” Schieffer said. “But the fact of the matter is what propelled them to No. 1 is they went to an hour and they were the first to do that. When they did that, it left us in the dust.”
Schieffer repeatedly nagged his bosses to follow suit. He made the same speech when Jeff Fager and David Rhodes took over last year, not expecting much. When they gave the go-ahead, Schieffer said, “I nearly fainted.”
(The approval has some strings attached. Rhodes said it will be reviewed after 20 weeks before it is made permanent.)
Ratings and election news figured in the timing. “Meet the Press,” now with David Gregory, averaged 3.3 million viewers during the first three months of the year. “Face the Nation” was a close second with 3.09 million, the Nielsen company said. “This Week” had 2.53 million and “Fox News Sunday” averaged 1.15 million. “Face the Nation” is the only broadcast to see its ratings improve over last year.
Betsy Fischer, “Meet the Press” executive producer, said she’s all for more Sunday morning TV time.
“When we went to an hour 20 years ago, I remember the big advantage was that it gave us much more flexibility in programming the show,” Fischer said. “I suspect it will be beneficial to CBS in that respect as well.”
Schieffer said he most felt the disadvantage of a half-hour slot when a guest would be booked mid-week and subsequent news would change what needed to be on the show. Schieffer said he hated to “bump” a guest off in these circumstances. Now, a person could be moved to the second half-hour.
CBS is hoping the change will improve ratings. Some rivals wonder if it might actually hurt, suggesting “Face the Nation” gets a big boost because it follows the popular “Sunday Morning” and that some of that show’s viewers may leave “Face” over the course of an hour.
Schieffer, who turned 75 in February, had long planned to retire shortly after he turned 70 in 2007. He even announced it publicly. But he was persuaded to stay for the 2008 election, and retirement never happened.
“I’m just having so much fun,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do. My wife, who used to want me to retire, has now decided she doesn’t want me to retire. She said, `You would drive me crazy if you retire.’ Now that I’ve got her on the team, I’m going to hang around for a while.”
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