Chuck Todd was an imperfect host of “Meet the Press” on Sunday. And that’s perfect.
Sunday talk shows, and most particularly NBC’s “Meet the Press,” defy the normal rules of television news: spit-shine good looks and slick urbanity are unwelcome. Viewers don’t want anchors as hosts; they want hosts who don’t act like anchors.
The conventional wisdom has emerged: David Gregory was just a pretty face without much interest in politics, and that's why he failed. That's silly. He was an excellent White House correspondent -- perhaps the best TV journalist covering the Bush White House, when few were asking tough questions. He was chosen to moderate Meet the Press because he showed quite a lot of promise as a political journalist and a newsmaking interviewer.
But Gregory's MTP did end up feeling a bit stale and consultant-driven. It was almost like watching public television after it went through a network focus group. It had either given up on young viewers, or it had made the assumption (perhaps rightfully) that the only young people watching were doing so more out of an interest in tradition than an interest in the show's format.
One good example: Gregory's iteration of the program attempted to reconnect with middle America with a segment called "Meeting America." The Chuck Todd version of the segment, using the same correspondent and basically the same premise, is called "Who needs Washington?" The name change alone makes the segment feel a lot more relevant to the current national conversation.
That said, I'm pretty sure Meet the Press sank in the ratings not because of its segment titles or its host's TV news versatility, but because it stopped booking the best guests.
Tim Russert could get away with tough questions, and politicians still felt an obligation to go back on. You couldn't make a serious national political play without going through him first. Russert ruled by fiat, and after his untimely death, nobody felt quite the same obligation to appear on MTP.
Far from a pretty face, Gregory's reputation as an interviewer who really wanted to make news drove the most important guests of the week to other programs. In the past year or two, most of the biggest Sunday morning bookings seem to have gone to ABC and CBS, only appearing on MTP as part of a full ginsburg (or something close). David Gregory became an unnecessary risk.
Without important guests, Gregory was never in a position to shape the conversation the way Russert could, and people stopped watching.
Maybe Chuck Todd's hardscrabble demeanor and apparent social media savvy will help him recapture Russert's magic and lead guests to appear on MTP despite the tougher and more unpredictable interviews. Ultimately, Todd needs potential guests to perceive a political cost for avoiding MTP, or the show's problems booking relevant guests will persist. Being the #1 show made this a lot easier, but it could still be doable.
I'd hate to think the only solution to the show's ratings troubles is to make it more appealing to politician guests. That's a race to the bottom that will make all the Sunday shows irrelevant before too long.