With it all but official that NBC will choose David Gregory as the new moderator of Meet the Press, comes a tremendous opportunity to update the show, and continue to lead the field of Sunday programs. Or, the show could continue doing what it has done since Tim Russert took over the show in 1991, and face a slow decline.
NBC has to recognize a couple of things. First and foremost, my gut says the ratings for Meet the Press for more than a decade were more about brand loyalty to Tim Russert than to the show itself. There's no available data to prove it, but anecdotal evidence points to it being true. The format is really no different than Face the Nation, and yet MTP scored consistently higher. Then there's the fact that many people simply referred to the show as "Russert," as in, "Did you see Russert this weekend?" Who says, "Did you see Schieffer?"
Second, and somewhat related, NBC cannot and should not expect David Gregory to "fill the shoes" of Russert. I suspect David Gregory would tell you the same thing. Gregory's style is completely different than Russert's as a host. Race for the White House / 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue made that very clear. Leaving aside what you think of their analysis and reporting (and I know there's a ton of criticism out there), Russert's style was to use facts and past quotes to throw off politicians and policy makers, which made for great entertainment. Gregory is a much more "Devil's Advocate" type of questioner, relying much more on "what if's" than hard research. Both styles are valid, but very different.
And so, if NBC just keeps the current format, those who were loyal to the Russert brand are extremely likely to be disappointed by Gregory's very different way about him.
Here are three simple things NBC should do, to keep the show fresh, and build a new loyalty to the show itself.
1) Return to the panel format - There's a reason Tim Russert was called the "Moderator," because that was the original role of the host - to moderate a panel of questioners and guests. For any of the single guests, have two reporters sit aside Gregory, who cover the beat the guest comes from. Let them use their expertise and knowledge to play the role Russert did, using past statements and facts against the guest, and allow Gregory to speak to the bigger picture. There are tons of excellent reporters out there who barely make it on TV who could be fantastic panelists. For instance, if Secretary Gates is the guest, call upon New York Times Pentagon reporter Mark Mazzetti and the Washington Post's Tom Ricks to join in the questioning. This takes the pressure off Gregory, and allows for potentially much more interesting segments than just a one-on-one.
2) Include Bloggers from the left and right - On the panel discussion segments, it's far past time to make bloggers a permanent part of the table. First, bloggers are just as important in shaping opinion as most of the "pundits" they have on. Second, bloggers come with a built in fan base which would tune in to see them, keeping ratings up. Third, the phase I hate most on TV is when a reporter says, "Well, the bloggers think...." Like they read the blogs. They almost always have blog opinions way wrong, so why not actually have the bloggers on if they're so interested in their opinions? Fourth, does anyone really care to hear EVERY WEEK what David Broder and David Brooks have to say? Nothing against those guys, but there are other opinions out there, and ones who have their ear to the ground of the respective political bases. So, sure, keep a couple mainstream pundits. But rotate in bloggers from both sides each week.
3) No More Consultants! - I say this as a consultant. Please. It's not that I don't enjoy Bob Shrum tearing apart someone as he usually does. But, there are far more interesting and intelligent people out there who can debate all these issues in a substantive and engaging way, because they don't accept DNC and RNC talking points. How about some folks from outside the Beltway who rarely get the chance to talk on the really big shows? I might be biased because I used to work with him on the Hill, but David Sirota never fails to impress me when he's on with Rachel Maddow. How about getting him on there to represent the left? And, though I don't read enough conservative publications to know, I'm sure there are sharp, young conservatives from outside the Beltway who can be called upon as well. Unless the consultants are on there to represent their campaigns, please spare us all the very predictable "debates" they engage in.
The bottom line here is that now is the time for Meet the Press to shake things up, to recognize that the formula was getting stale, but Russert and the viewers loyal to him kept the show on the top. The 2008 election showed us the electorate is changing, and quick. Now it's time for Meet the Press to give us some "Change We Can Believe In."
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