By Matthew A. Baum, Kalb Professor of Global Communication
We studied the content and Nielsen ratings for interviews on the three network Sunday morning talk shows—Meet the Press (henceforth MTP), Face the Nation (FTN), and This Week (TW). We compared three time periods—1983 (MTP, FTN), 1999 (all three shows), and 2015 (all three shows). In order to insure apples-to-apples comparisons, for over time comparisons, we either restricted our analyses to MTP and FTN or analyzed the data with and without TW. For “overall” snapshots we included all three shows (MTP, FTN, TW).
Our goals were fourfold: (1) identify any discernable trends in the topics and types of guests featured on the Sunday talk shows, (2) identify any trends in audience ratings, (3) assess whether and to what extent trends in topics and guests correlate with audience ratings, and (4) assess whether, to what extent, and under what circumstances, the Sunday talk shows influence the subsequent news agenda.
We have seven principal findings, as follows:
- Content. Politics and process have, over time, increasingly supplanted substantive policy expertise and content, even while the latter types of interview guests and content earn higher ratings.
- Guests. Interviews with administration officials and substantive policy experts earn the highest audience ratings on average, and feature among the most substantive, policy-oriented content. Yet they are declining as proportions of all interviews
- Subject Matter. We find a similar, yet less pronounced, pattern for interview topics, with topics that earn the highest audience ratings not necessarily corresponding to the most frequently appearing, or most substantive, policy-oriented interview topics. However, the correlations between topic prevalence and Nielsen ratings are modest, both overall and broken out by gender.
- Gender Preferences. Women account for a majority of the audience since 1999, yet featured topics somewhat more closely reflect the preferences of men than of women.
- Guest Demographics. The vast majority of guests are White men, though there is a noteworthy uptick in African American guests in 2015 relative to 1983 or 1999 and more women appeared in 2015 relative to prior years. Republican guests also substantially outnumber Democratic guests across all three periods.
- Agenda Setting by Members of Congress (1980-2003). Rhetoric by members of Congress from the Sunday interview programs grew less likely from 1980 to 2003 to appear in subsequent network news reports—especially discussions of the economy or budget. The exception is foreign policy, which is more likely to be picked up by later news reports.
- Agenda Setting Overall (1983, 1999, 2015). Looking across all guests and episodes from 1983, 1999, and 2015, (1) guests were far more likely to be featured in subsequent news reports in 1999 and 2015, relative to 1983, though much of this is attributable to 28 appearances in 2015 by Donald Trump that generated unprecedented levels of subsequent news coverage, as well as the post-1983 advent of 24-hour cable news channels; (2) Discussions of substance are more likely than discussions of process to appear in subsequent news reports; and (3) there is some, albeit limited, overlap between the topics that are the top ratings winners and those that attract the most subsequent attention in the news, with healthcare being the most noteworthy instance of such overlap. (Several additional findings are discussed in Section 7, below.)
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. They might also benefit, albeit perhaps modestly so, from better matching their most commonly featured topics to those topics that attract the largest audiences, especially women, as well as by diversifying the demographics—race, gender, and even party ID—of guests. Finally, doing so is potentially beneficial not only for audience ratings, but also in terms of agenda setting—that is, earning secondary coverage of interviews in subsequent news reports.
 Unfortunately, the Nielsen data are too restrictive for us to adequately examine audience preferences by age.