"The Sunday Rundown"

Sunday, September 14, 2014
NBC "rebooted" its 66-year old flagship Sunday talk program with its 12th host last weekend

Although it took me about 36 hours to do (thanks to a very late-night airing on MSNBC and an aging DVR in our bedroom), I finally got to watch last Sunday's much-anticipated "reboot" of NBC's Meet the Press (MTP) early Monday afternoon. The longest running show on broadcast television history (it will be celebrating its 67th anniversary in early November) has recently been mired in a ratings slump in the years following long-time host Tim Russert's death in 2008. NBC announced last month that they would be replacing host David Gregory with MSNBC's Chuck Todd and that news put the media critics into overdrive in postulating how this change would affect this flagship Sunday talk program. While not a regular viewer of the show, I must admit that I thought that I was watching a weekend edition of Todd's former gig, The Daily Rundown (TDR), instead of the legacy of Martha Roundtree, Lawrence E. Spivak and Russert which, in the short term, might be a very bold move on the network's part.

Three of the last four Meet the Press hosts (from left David Gregory, Chuck Todd and Tim Russert) on a 2007 show. (photo courtesy of Alex Wong/Getty Images)

If you have browsed through my other posts on this blog, you would've noticed that there are quite a few about Todd and the show he hosted from June 2011 through last month. While I come nowhere close to the "junkie" level that the current political director for NBC News can be categorized, I do like to stay informed on political matters beyond the headlines seen on nightly news programs or in the morning newspapers and the in-depth information he provided on a regular basis was much appreciated. Todd was brought over to NBC by Russert in 2007 from National Journal's The Hotline to be the NBC News Political Director and he was a frequent guest on that network's newscasts as well as shows over on the MSNBC cable outlet. He was elevated to NBC News Chief White House Correspondent when Gregory moved over to the moderator chair at MTP in late 2008 and was allowed to keep both positions when he got his daily program (he recently relinquished the White House role to fellow NBC journalist Chris Jansing).

Former Meet the Press host David Gregory holds up a high capacity magazine during his December 23, 2012 interview of National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. He was subsequently investigated for breaking DC's gun laws by having that item in the studio.

For the sake of full disclosure, I must admit that my regular Sunday morning "talking heads" choice for the past six years has been Fox News Sunday (FNS), hosted by Chris Wallace (a former MTP moderator). Originally done on a dare, I watch this show to take in its"fair and balanced" perspective that seems totally unique to Fox News and this is accomplished in a Sun Tzu-like "know your enemies" manner. I have looked in on the NBC show infrequently since Russert's passing and did get to see the contentious December 2012 exchange between Gregory and National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings (Gregory's use of an actual ammunition magazine initiated an investigation due to that device not being allowed within the DC city limits). Because FNS and MTP run at the same time in the Dayton market, I had to make a decision and it was to watch the former live and catch the latter, if it attracted online attention, when it was rerun on MSNBC on Sunday afternoon (and I had to record the late night rerun of this Sunday's edition early Monday morning to allow me to watch the show on a television screen instead of on my computer monitor). To round out my political television regimen, I also watch CBS News' Face the Nation with long-time host Bob Schieffer live at 10:30am before I begin wading through the newspapers.

Behind-the-scenes look at the Obama-Todd interview in the Cabinet Room of the White House, conducted on September 6th.

To elevate the hype surrounding the start of Todd's tenure as the 12th MTP moderator, the network scored an exclusive interview for him by booking President Obama for his initial show. Although he has already interviewed Obama on at least two other occasions (and the president had appeared on the show eleven times prior to this most recent one), it was advertised to be a wide-ranging discussion about international, domestic and political issues. The show started with a few select sound bites from that session and a rundown of other items Todd would touch upon during the hour. After a perfunctory introduction and homage to the show's former hosts, Todd immediately started in on the taped interview (it was broken up into three segments that ran throughout the hour) and then discussed points that were made with that day's panelists (Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough, Nia-Malika Henderson of The Washington Post, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, NBC national security correspondent Michael Leiter took the first shift and Buzzfeed's John Stanton and The Cook Political Report's Amy Walter replaced Mitchell and Leiter for the remaining discussion periods).

Ben's Chili Bowl samples were delivered to Tim Russert's iconic Meet the Press set during an October 2007 taping session with comedian Bill Cosby.

Todd's new set (left) features a front facing semi-circular panel table where Gregory's (right) had the host facing the camera and the guests further up the two sides of the table facing him.

The one somewhat noticeable difference when the studio cameras turned on after those clips was the set itself. Long gone was the iconic angular wooden table made famous by Russert (and the glass one used by Gregory) and it was replaced by a 5-wide semi-circular panel table with the host seated in the middle and two guests flanking him on either side. It reminded me of the set-ups used by the broadcast networks and cable news outlets for election coverage rather than a Sunday morning talk show.

 Todd likes to use the smaller 4-person table and facing chairs for interviews with small groups.

 One of the biggest "wonks" on television needs to have one of the coolest "toys" available.

It is rare to see Todd away from a desk or table without his trusted (now MTP-branded) clipboard "woobie".

For other portions of the program, I thought that Todd was back on his TDR set because two fixtures (and one on-air "woobie") followed him over to the new assignment. During his 3+ years at TDR, he has perfected his on-screen presentation skills by the use of the 4-person table as well as adopting a large touch-screen display to present his political data in a compelling visual manner. He looked much more comfortable during the segment with the three mayors than he did the entire show at the 5-person panel table. He also got a few minutes to stand in front of one of his other favorite places--next to a large touch screen display. This "toy" has grown on Todd and he appears to relish his mastery of the device to transform"wonky" information into a more understandable format fr the viewers at home. Like many other television presenters and hosts, he probably fears a teleprompter failure or the rare occasion when a fact might escape their immediate recall capabilities so a clipboard is normally in his hands whenever he ventures away from a desk or table. Such a comforting device (much like a small child's blanket) can also provide some measure of security when facing a potentially stressful event (such as standing in front of close to three million sets of eyeballs on national television).

Apparently, a memo wasn't sent out about panelists wearing suit jackets and keeping his heavily tattooed arms covered.

Many other columnists and critics have already evaluated Todd's initial show and I must say that he got through it pretty much unscathed (the "you've not said the word 'Syria' so far" and his peppering of the president the only things I saw as being remarkable) and you could tell that the pressure was off when he was high-fiving Stanton and Scarborough when the closing credits ran down the screen. His true test, at least to his liberal critics, will be when he conducts a similar style one-on-one interview with a conservative guest (i.e. John McCain, John Boehner or one of the GOP's potential presidential candidates for the party's 2016 nomination). I did notice that Scarborough, in a manner unlike what is seen every weekday morning, was rather reserved and disciplined when he appears on someone else's show and, if I were Todd, I would've made Mr. Stanton wear a jacket on the set to establish a "dress code" standard for his tenure as host. I don't think that "Little Russ" would've tolerated such a fashion "faux pas" on his set.

NBC anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw barely made it through the special report announcing his friend and colleague's death back in June 2008.

Speaking of Russert, it is hard to imagine that it's been over six years since we lost the 16-year MTP host and political paragon for NBC News. I can still remember not believing Tom Brokaw, former NBC Nightly News anchor, when he came on the air to announce the death of his friend and long-time colleague on the afternoon of June 13, 2008 and it still brings tears to my eyes when I rewatch the posted videos on YouTube. Although probably only in the neighborhood of six feet tall, he was described as "imposing" in his physical presence as well as the tenacity in the questioning of his guests. In the years before Google and the internet, Russert did extensive research about the relevant topics and the positions taken by those he invited onto the show. Described as the "Russert Test", politicians would tout surviving one of his interviews as a right of passage among their colleagues and a necessity for those seeking national office or the White House.

The white board that Tim Russert used to write his 2000 presidential election prediction was on display at the Newseum news history museum in the summer of 2012.

Because of his powerful platform and professional status, Russert become ingrained into some of our modern political dialog. During the lengthy election night coverage of the contentious 2000 presidential race, he used the term "red states" and "blue states" to describe the American political landscape in terms of national politics (red for those voting Republican, blue for those voting Democratic). Up through that year, networks alternated between those two colors for their on-screen graphics to visibly represent how votes in the Electoral College would be cast but the system in place for the George W. Bush-Al Gore election have stayed with those specific hues ever since. Another item from that night was a generic office supply store white board that Russert continually updated throughout the night to tally up votes in order to determine who would be the winner. When Florida was first called for Gore and then reversed for Bush and finally put into a "too close to call" category that made it the last state to announce its results, the MTP host erased all of his previous calculations and simply wrote down, "Florida! Florida! Florida!" on that board. He kept it as a memento of that night and his family loaned it to the Newseum news history museum in Washington, DC during their "Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press" exhibit that ran from February 2012 through January 2013.

 Meet the Press host Chuck Todd provides a video "teaser" for upcoming shows.

I wish Todd all the best with this new role, one that perhaps Russert was looking at him filling once he felt comfortable enough to turn over the MTP reigns to a younger man with a similar passion for politics. Both Todd and Russert had formative experiences in the political world prior to journalism (the former worked on Iowa senator Tom Harkin's 1992 presidential campaign and the latter served in the offices of New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and governor Mario Cuomo). Because of his relative inexperience at the network, Todd was passed over in 2008 when Gregory got the hosting nod but his stock has risen significantly within NBC News over the past six years and the time was right to make this recent move and help to improve their ratings (Russert started hosting in 1991 at the age of 41 and Todd turned 42 earlier this year). While Gregory was an adequate host, he just didn't have the gritty edge readily seen in his predecessor and his successor. Short of being a nightly news anchor, hosting a Sunday morning nationally televised talk show is a journalist's dream job and I only hope that this career success hasn't come too quickly or doesn't generate the same levels of stress that fell his mentor at an early age. Although I'll be splitting my time among the competition in the near term, I may have to start saying "if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press" as Todd grows more comfortable in the chair.

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