Can 'political junkie' Chuck Todd revive 'Meet the Press'?

NBC's 'Meet the Press' has been losing market share to rival Sunday TV talk shows on ABC and CBS. NBC hopes to reverse that by replacing host David Gregory with Chuck Todd.

NBC/William B. Plowman/AP
NBC Political Director Chuck Todd appears on "Meet the Press" in 2013. NBC News says Todd will replace David Gregory as moderator of the Sunday TV talk show beginning Sept. 7.

Welcome, Chuck Todd, to the difficult job of hosting “Meet the Press,” NBC’s long-running Sunday morning news show.

“Chuck will ensure that 'Meet the Press' is the beating heart of politics, the place where newsmakers come to make news, where the agenda is set,” NBC News president Deborah Turness said in making the announcement.

By implication, the statement suggests that David Gregory, the show’s outgoing host, had failed to make it that “beating heart.”

Yet, even as Mr. Todd is being showered with praise as a genuine political-news junkie, here’s an important note of context: Whether hosted by Todd or Mr. Gregory or anyone else, Sunday morning shows aren’t the agenda-setting venue they used to be.

It’s not that shows like “Meet the Press” and ABC’s “This Week” have been vanquished, or that they ever stood monolithically as keepers of the public square. But they’re operating today in a climate of heightened competition and hyper-criticism, thanks to trends like the rise of online media and the fragmentation of TV audiences over the past decade and more.

With his acknowledged passion for politics, Todd may be able to lift “Meet the Press” back to its former status as the solid ratings leader among the Sunday shows. That remains to be seen, but many media watchers are saying the change of quarterbacks was the right move for NBC.

Ms. Turness said Todd’s analytical skills and “infectious enthusiasm” make him “the perfect next generation moderator of this beloved broadcast.”

Fox News media analyst Howard Kurtz agreed that “when it comes to politics, no one will accuse Todd of phoning it in,” but added that “it may be hard for anyone to turn around ‘Meet the Press.’ ”

“Meet the Press” is TV’s longest-running show (launched in 1947) and was dominant on Sundays under host Tim Russert for much of the 2000s decade. The audience for “Meet the Press” was about 4.7 million viewers per week at the end of the 2002-2003 ratings season, according to data tracked by the Pew Research Center’s journalism project.

By last year, that audience had fallen to 2.75 million.

In part, that reflects an ebbing overall audience for the Sunday shows of the three big networks – from 10.4 million per week down to 8.4 million per week over that 10 year period.

NBC lost market share to ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, and especially to CBS’s “Face the Nation,” hosted by Bob Schieffer.

In some ways, what’s notable is how Sunday viewership has eroded less in recent years than viewership for nightly news broadcasts. Pew surveys show a sharp rise since the early 1990s in the share of Americans who say they “never” watch national nightly newscasts.

What’s changed for all traditional news broadcasts, though, is the proliferation of alternative media.

Increasingly, politics-only websites and broadcasts like the “Daily Show” with Jon Stewart that blend news and entertainment have encroached on the turf of companies that once could lay some claim to the title of “agenda setter.”

The traditional Sunday morning shows are still important venues for discussing the week’s news.

But now, hosts like Gregory appear to have a harder time breaking news, and they face an army of online critics ready to critique any failings.

Meanwhile, newsmakers like potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have plenty of ways to get a message out without needing to do a televised Sunday interview. Ms. Clinton’s book tour earlier this summer included a stop to answer questions from Jon Stewart, for instance.

Now Chuck Todd gets his turn.

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