A New Host On 'Meet The Press' Isn't Going To Solve Its Problems

WASHINGTON - MARCH 23: NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd (L), speaks as moderator Tim Russert (R) looks on during a taping of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios March 23, 2008 in Washington, DC. Todd discussed the presidential race for the elections in November, 2008. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
WASHINGTON - MARCH 23: NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd (L), speaks as moderator Tim Russert (R) looks on during a taping of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios March 23, 2008 in Washington, DC. Todd discussed the presidential race for the elections in November, 2008. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

As noted earlier this morning, the David Gregory rumor mill has spun round to the news, courtesy of Politico's Playbook, that Chuck Todd is reportedly now the "likely successor to David Gregory" as the show's master of ceremonies.

"Meet The Press" has been a somewhat troubled institution lately, but this isn't the move I would have made to fix it. Of course, I would have simply canceled the show in favor of broadcasting more soccer games. Or tennis! The best iterations of "Meet The Press" in the past few years have been when "Meet The Press" was actually The French Open. I've learned a lot more about the state of contemporary politics from watching clay-court specialists than I have from watching David Gregory.

But I reckon that if you'd read this far (why did you do that?), then you'd probably like a "more productive" answer than "cancel 'Meet The Press.'" Well, here we go.

"Meet The Press" has been experiencing a prolonged period of debacle-licious ratings woes this year, with Gregory himself frequently being presented as the origin of said woe. But while it is true that Gregory's chief qualification as a host of "Meet The Press" is his ability to reflect waves of light, the show's ratings problems really cannot be blamed solely on Gregory.

As I've previously explained, none of these Sunday shows get impressive ratings as a general rule. And that's because their audience is basically limited to three groups of people: Beltway insiders, really old people, and people who have become immobilized on a semi-permanent basis and are thus unable to reach their remote controls and change the channel.

Ratings for "Meet The Press" for Aug. 3 were, according to TV Newser, 2.113 million total viewers, with a scant 584,000 coming from the demographic of 25-year-olds to 54-year-olds. However, Aug. 3's big winner, "This Week," only notched 2.587 million viewers, with a mere 746,000 coming from the 25-54 demo. So it's wrong to say "Meet The Press'" ratings are bad. "This Week's" ratings are bad! "Meet The Press'" ratings are just worse. This is one big "tallest hobbit" contest.

The question then becomes, "How do we build a new audience for this show?" And I'm afraid there are no easy answers. (I mean, besides the super-easy "cancel the show" answer.) But you can comfortably disabuse yourself of the notion that simply replacing David Gregory will somehow fix the problem. This part of Playbook's reporting says it all:

The move is an effort by NBC News President Deborah Turness to restore passion and insider cred to a network treasure that has been adrift since the death in 2008 of the irreplaceable Tim Russert. Although Todd is not a classic television performer guaranteed to wow focus groups, his NBC bosses have been impressed by his love of the game, which brings with it authenticity, sources, and a loyal following among newsmakers and political junkies.

Chuck Todd is an intelligent, reasonably informed journalist who seems to be a genuinely decent person. That's an improvement over Gregory. Is he passionate? He loves politics and process. Beyond that, his sense of passion seems to have limits. Passionate people, for instance, can't wait to explain stuff to ordinary human Americans. That's not a job Todd wants. Todd is the guy who once lamented that a poll indicated that a majority of Americans didn't understand what the debt ceiling was, and then shrugged and said that "the president has to use political capital and time to flip these numbers," as if there wasn't a teevee camera pointed at him at that moment with the ability to broadcast information to people. Chuck Todd exists somewhere on the spectrum between "disinterested" and "uninterested."

More to the point, however: If there's one thing that "Meet The Press" does not need right now, it's a greater emphasis on the following: "insider cred," "love of the game," "authenticity," "sources" (unless we are talking about some other, different group of "sources" -- and we aren't) and more "newsmakers and political junkies" in the audience. What the people behind "Meet The Press" don't seem to understand is that they are currently maxed out on these things. They have gone just as far as they possibly can with those ingredients. There needs to be some tough coming-to-grips.

The big problem is that "Meet The Press" isn't participating in the modern, 21st-century news environment. If the show was participating in the same world as the rest of us, they'd recognize that the audience they want is well-versed in the stories of the week, and that they've already absorbed the talking points of the major players, availed themselves of a wealth of insight and expertise, and have even participated in their own discussions on current events. So when Sunday rolls around and "Meet The Press" indulges itself in its childlike devotion to starting over at the beginning, people think, "Really, what's the use?"

Imagine slogging your way through a long novel, taking the time to document and ruminate upon the experience, supplementing your own discoveries by seeking out relevant insights and criticism, and then at the end of the week some 10th-grader jumps in your face, recites the Cliffs Notes to the novel out loud while asking you to consider buying an erectile dysfunction treatment. That's basically how most normal human Americans view "Meet The Press."

One doesn't get the sense that the producers of "Meet The Press" have in any way accounted for the sophistication of the show's potential audience. Instead, they are operating at the lowest level of news-gathering -- the perfect level for their guests to dispense the talking points they've been whittling into a fine point over the course of the week. The host's only purpose, it seems, is to move the guests off their talking points. It's a hollow enterprise with rare impact in the real world. Rather than enjoin a high-level dissection, the Sunday shows present a remedial form of news that simply cannot appeal to any significant section of the population.

So, how to solve a problem like this? Previously, Jonathan Bernstein and Paul Waldman have made a lot of great suggestions. Waldman's First Rule should be gospel: "The people you bring on should 1) know as much as possible about the things you're going to discuss, and 2) have little if any interest in spinning." Many people have suggested that "Meet The Press" return to the format of its heyday, in which officials were subjected to a no-frills grilling by a panel of reporters.

I also tend to think that shows like "Meet The Press" suffer from an access problem -- that is to say, they are so concerned with maintaining their access to political elites that the shows are now effectively a no-accountability salon. Somehow, somewhere a wire has gotten crossed and "Meet The Press" has become party to a set of perverse incentives.

I've previously highlighted how Las Vegas-based political reporter Jon Ralston has managed to keep his journalistic enterprise running according to the correct polarity. Ralston benefits from the fact that the people who avoid his tough questions are quickly and easily branded as cowards. Somehow, the Sunday shows have got to figure out a way back to that. If they're to have guests, those guests should be made to feel uncomfortable. If they refuse to come on the show, they should be further brutalized. Let's face it: If the prevailing idea is, "We need to keep Beltway toffs happy or our ratings will suffer," then that idea isn't working anyway, so it's well past time to get the knives out.

Beyond that, "Meet The Press" should of course never have anyone who carries the title "campaign consultant" or "political strategist" anywhere near its studio. And it should dispense with all panel discussions altogether, because they are entirely without value. There are Funyun crumbs on the floor of the PATH train that have fewer empty calories than the average "Meet The Press" panel-wank.

But all of these suggestions ... they are just as hoary and overplayed as John McCain. And they don't really get to that whole "adapting to the modern news environment" and its sophisticated, curious and purpose-driven audience that's long avoided tuning in on Sunday. So here's a radical idea that can set "Meet The Press" on an entirely new path -- one that might worry its competitors.

Go longform. One of the most surprising things about the Sunday shows in general is that they are producing the same disposable content as the average cable news show, and expecting their vaunted time slot and more elite guests to take them to the summit of broadcast news. But shows like "Meet The Press" have a six-day lead in which to craft their broadcast. There's no reason that it should look like it was slapped together in the parking lot on Saturday afternoon. The obvious adaptation is to make use of the resource of time, and go deeper and longer into the stories.

I mean, why not? As social media increasingly becomes the new front page, the whole notion of broadcast television as the pre-eminent source of both "breaking news" and disposable content is going to become more and more passe. The future of television news belongs to people who can take their cameras places other people can't, use the medium creatively, and deliver "slow" news. The future of CNN's content, for example, isn't "Crossfire," it's "Blackfish." Why not make "Meet The Press" the first to join the future?

Right now, NBC News can deploy all sorts of reporters across the country, finding out how normal human Americans are struggling or succeeding and explaining how and why that is. Great opportunities lie in wait beyond the Beltway, to do things like Frontline's "Two American Families." But even if the world beyond the Potomac River is scary to "Meet The Press'" producers, a lot of work can still be done on Capitol Hill: Reporters can take us inside the legislative wranglings, explain the interests the drive the debate, and expose the identities of the people who pay members of Congress to think a certain way.

One of the best things that has happened to broadcast news this year is the advent of HBO's new show, "Last Week Tonight." "Last Week Tonight" was advertised in a shaggy-dog sort of way, with its host -- former Daily Show correspondent and fill-in host Jon Oliver -- explaining what a poor job the show was going to do at keeping up with the newscycle and reporting the news. Then it debuted, and instantly demonstrated that what they'd always intended was to do a better job then everyone else. (The fact that it is, technically, a "Sunday show" is not a coincidence.)

The speed with which "Last Week Tonight" has surpassed nearly all comers in terms of quality should really alarm people. As a representative example, here is "Last Week Tonight's" segment on the legislative wranglings and regulations surrounding the nutritional supplement industry, a topic that at first blush seems like it would be more dull than a test pattern designed by Samuel Beckett:

This content beats "Meet The Press" coming and going. The show literally wandered right onto "Meet The Press'" Beltway turf and delivered a report with a sophistication that no Sunday show has pulled off in years. It explains without being condescending. It gets "inside" the story without fronting like an "insider." It treats the audience as people who are capable of handling the material, while remaining concerned enough about the matter to show its audience things they don't already know. And then they really report the facts that have remained occluded. This is one of those enterprises where the secret, hidden information is actual information and not some pundit's exercise in counter-intuition.

This 16-minute segment attracted 3,889,379 views in its YouTube shell alone. If "Meet The Press" could pull off numbers like that, it would be time to throw a parade down Constitution Avenue. At this point, you would hang a "Meet The Press" segment with that large an audience in the Newseum. (As it happens, NBC News doesn't do a good job tending to its brand on YouTube. There's no dedicated "Meet The Press" channel. Still, for a representative demonstration of the level of interest in its content, here's David Gregory's interview with John Kerry, attempting to defend President Barack Obama's foreign policy record. It's taken home a scintillating 497 views.)

Of course, it helps that "Last Week Tonight" is also screamingly funny. This is something that "Meet The Press" would definitely be better off never, ever attempting, ever. But it's not jokes that that are getting people to stick around and watch 16 minutes on nutrition supplements. It's the purpose. It's the fact that the show wanted to have a point. It's the fact that the producers and writers and host visibly put in the work. And it's the fact that they convincingly demonstrate real respect and genuine concern for their audience, instead of trying to get over by posing as an "insider" operating under a veil of savviness.

The dirty little secret of "Meet The Press" and its Sunday show ilk is that you can very easily distill them down to their essence: "Bomb or don't bomb, have a debt ceiling default or don't have a debt ceiling default, fix the problem or don't fix the problem -- we get paid either way." The ethos of "What, me worry?" is a turn-off for most rational people, all of whom have someone that they have to take responsibility for -- spouses, siblings, parents, children, friends -- while Sunday show hosts promise softballs for access and brand-management opportunities for wealthy thought-havers. The most compelling and honest thing one can say about "Meet The Press" is that a radical change will do it a lot of good.

But I guess it's Chuck Todd and a new deck chair configuration instead. That's OK. People clearly have better options.

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