THE BLOG
04/21/2014 07:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2014

What's Wrong With Meet The Press

NBC via Getty Images

NBC's Sunday morning political talk show Meet The Press has one thing going for it that almost no other television show can lay claim to: It will never, ever be cancelled. The reason for this fundamental certainty is that NBC, by continuing the show, can continue to claim that it's got "America's longest-running television show." And NBC is never going to give up that bragging right, for any reason. So the show itself isn't in any kind of trouble, because there will be something airing on Sunday mornings called Meet The Press long after all of us are dead. It's about as permanent as you can get in the media business, in other words. It's been around for well over six decades, and it's not going away any time soon.

On the other hand, whether current host David Gregory is around for very much longer is becoming more of an open question these days, especially after the Washington Post just published a long story about the woeful state of affairs at Meet The Press under Gregory's lead. Ratings are down. Way down -- down to third place, behind both ABC's This Week and CBS's Face The Nation (which is currently leading the ratings pack), although still ahead of Fox News Sunday (which trails far behind in a distant fourth).

While most are focusing on a juicy tidbit from the Post story about a consultant hired to figure out what is wrong -- not with the show, but with Gregory himself -- what struck me was the tenor of the comments on the Washington Post website. Lefties and righties don't much agree on the reasons why, but they do agree on one basic concept: David Gregory is a terrible host. I didn't see a single comment defending him, in fact (although this is a purely subjective sample, I freely admit).

Righties seem convinced that Gregory is bad mostly because of guilt-by-association: NBC News is connected to MSNBC; MSNBC is ultra-liberal; therefore Gregory is nothing more than a shill for the Obama White House. Lefties are more detailed in their analysis of the terribleness of Gregory: he leans way too far to the right, he treats liberals with contempt during interviews while sucking up to conservatives (count the number of times he interrupts Democrats versus interrupting Republicans, just as a quick measure), and he once said mean things about Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden. The one prevailing opinion that seems to be somewhat shared by both sides in the debate is that David Gregory couldn't ask a decent follow-up question if his very life depended on it. The funniest (and snarkiest) comment I noticed: "Yeah, but his hair is perfect!"

One other obvious point frequently made is that David Gregory isn't at all in the same league as Tim Russert, the man who preceded him in the job. But, to be minimally fair to Gregory, this may not matter as much any more. Because the whole Sunday morning chatfest universe has been going through some major changes, and they're likely only going to accelerate in the near future. ABC's George Stephanopoulos may soon be promoted, and CBS's Bob Schieffer is likely to retire within the next year or so. This means there will be a shakeup in the Sunday morning scene similar to the one now going on in late-night television. Younger hosts may take over the whole genre, to put it another way. But this changing of the guard among the hosts will not take place in a vacuum. All of the shows are noticeably also changing their format, a process that has been going on for the past few years.

This is significant (for those that care) because the format for these shows doesn't change very often. Initially, the shows -- as evidenced by the title Meet The Press itself -- were heavily weighted towards actual members of "the press." One politician would sit in front of a whole panel of news reporters and would field questions from them all. You can see this occasionally in the historic clips they run of luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. or one of the Kennedys. It was a much more adversarial setup, with six (or more) reporters asking questions of one person. The shows had a certain "star chamber session" flavor to them, in fact. At some point this format shifted to having just one moderator (who represented all of "the press") asking questions of the interviewees. And then they added panels (or "roundtables" even though the tables often weren't) to hash over the interviews, afterwards. These panels started by consisting of mostly people from the press, but have now morphed into a strange mix of press, partisan political consultants, minor (or former) politicians, and anyone else they feel like inviting that week.

The shows settled into a basic format -- two interview segments of approximately 20 minutes each (sometimes solo interviews, sometimes with one politician from either party facing each other), followed by a 20-minute roundtable panel to end the show. The value of such extended interviews -- which are not seen anywhere else on television news these days -- was that the moderator would hopefully be successful in looking beyond that week's partisan talking points and provoking some real in-depth conversation on serious issues.

Those days are almost over, now. The shows are getting a lot more peripatetic. They flit from mini-interview to panel discussion, hither and yon. More interviews happen, but they are shorter (incidentally, this also allows for many more commercial breaks). Hosts interrupt the people they're supposed to be interviewing with regularity, borrowing a page from cable news shows. Getting politicians themselves to shout over each other is a common goal. Because of this, the guests booked are the ones that can be counted on to be as belligerent as possible. Which means seeing the same old faces, week after week. They look not for the most well-informed politician on any issue, but instead the loudest.

Personally, I think it's a shame that the one remaining place on broadcast television news that tried to get beyond mere talking points seems now to be succumbing to the world of five-minute interview segments that cable news ushered in. When the interview is that short, it's almost guaranteed that talking points are all you'll have time for, to put it another way.

I realize I may be just one grumpy voice shouting in the wind. The ratings, quite obviously, show that the new format the Sunday shows are adopting is better-liked by the public. I'm probably in the minority in my mourning the passing of the 20-minute interview segment. So be it.

Meet The Press is actually behind this curve. ABC seems to be the one leading the move to the "faster-paced" Sunday morning format. Which -- again, to be scrupulously fair -- may be a big problem with NBC's current ratings woes. Meet The Press has already started changing to this new format in the hopes of catching up, and now that they'll be matching their competitors, perhaps Meet The Press will now succeed in the ratings even with David Gregory still in the host's chair. Again: just to be fair to him.

To return to the title of this article, in my humble opinion there are several things wrong with Meet The Press. Booking the same old people over and over again is a big one (just once, I'd like to see a foreign policy segment without either John McCain or Lindsey Graham, for instance). The incredible partisan imbalance among the guests is another (it seems to be running about 2-to-1 Republican, and has been for at least a decade). The fact that truly hard questions are almost never asked by any host is an enormous problem as well -- what I like to call the "we all go to the same inside-the-Beltway cocktail parties" problem (asking hard questions means fewer party invites, to put it another way). And the move to the new "lightning-fast" format is a large problem as well, at least in my book. But all of these problems are shared by all the other Sunday morning shows, to one extent or another.

This leaves only one real conclusion. And if adopting the new format doesn't cause any uptick in the ratings over the next few months, it's going to become an inescapable conclusion even for the NBC News bigwigs: David Gregory is indeed the main problem. If Meet The Press copies the new format with no change in its ratings, then the network executives may come around to an opinion already shared by much of the public (if the Post comments are any measure, at least): David Gregory is an intellectual lightweight. Gregory appears incapable of asking a decent follow-up question -- one that has not been prepared for him ahead of time -- no matter what gets said in his interviews. Even when Meet The Press breaks some actual quote-worthy news during an interview, it's pretty obvious that David Gregory has to be told later on that a scoop happened, because he certainly shows no signs of realizing it at the time.

There is absolutely no danger of Meet The Press being cancelled. The show will go on. Sooner or later, though -- after exhausting all possible format gimmicks -- the higher-ups at NBC may finally realize they chose the wrong guy to host it when Russert died. The good news is that NBC News has a stable of up-and-coming prospects, any one of which could probably do a better job than Gregory. Put someone in the host's chair who has a broad range of political knowledge -- someone who doesn't have to have a flunky look up the facts to realize when a politician is lying, in other words. Meet The Press has a long legacy to live up to, and hopefully it will get the chance to match its former glory once again. After David Gregory leaves, that is.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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