The Russert Chair
by Felix Gillette
This article was published in the December 8, 2008, edition of The New York Observer.
On the morning of Sunday, Nov. 30, David Gregory, NBC News’ ubiquitous robo-anchor, popped up in front of the cameras at Rockefeller Plaza where over the course of several drizzly hours, he held forth on such topics as the dismal weather, Barry Manilow and the world’s largest floating Christmas Tree, which turns out to be in located in Rio de Janeiro.
Mr. Gregory"NBC’s chief White House correspondent, host of MSNBC’s 6 p.m. show 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and the world’s most indomitable substitute anchor"was filling in on Sunday for Lester Holt as co-anchor of Weekend Today.
But if Mr. Gregory has his way, as he often does at NBC, he will soon be spending his Sunday as moderator of Meet the Press.
Tom Brokaw had said he didn’t plan to stretch his interim hosting duties through the December holidays; and the network had scheduled an interview with President-elect Barack Obama for the Sunday, Dec. 7 program. Surely NBC News chief Jeff Zucker would have completed his plan for the future of Washington’s most important Sunday news program by then?
The conventional wisdom leading into Thanksgiving had been that the network was in the final stages of a bake-off between Meet the Press round table regulars Andrea Mitchell, NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent; NBC political director Chuck Todd; and Mr. Gregory.
Outside names were largely regarded as nonstarters: NBC is not in a financial position to enter into a bidding war.
But by Monday, internal betting was favoring Mr. Gregory.
“He’s the one who has substituted on the show,” one TV executive told The Observer over the Thanksgiving break. “He’s the most logical choice.”
Following a day of intense speculation inside the network about the future of the show, a report surfaced on the Huffington Post the evening of Dec. 1, citing no sources by name, declaring that Mr. Gregory had gotten the gig.
But inside the network uncertainty about what was going on continued through the following day. If the report was true, why wasn’t it being announced? Were there contracts remaining to be signed? And if so, were there conditions still to be met? And if those were not to be met now, then when?
Steve Friedman, the former longtime television news producer and current president of Vir2L Media, said that NBC executives had made most logical choice. “There are no bad ideas in television,” said Mr. Friedman. “There’s only poor execution.”
Mr. Friedman said there were a number of reasons to go with Mr. Gregory. “One: He’s a pro,” said Mr. Friedman. “Two: He’s there. Three: In a time of financial problems at the networks, it makes a lot of sense to stay in-house and not go outside to hire somebody at big dollars that are added. And"four"as important as Meet the Press is from an image point of view, it really isn’t a huge financial number.”
Mr. Friedman pointed out that while NBC makes a profit on Meet the Press, and can charge advertisers a premium for the prestige of the show, it’s still on only once a week for an hour. Compared to, say, Today, which is on for four hours a day, seven days week, Meet the Press has a smaller window of opportunity for gain and loss. “The difference between first and third, outside of ego, is not a big financial hit,” said Mr. Friedman. “The difference between first and third might be five or six million a year.”
Earlier this year, Noah Oppenheim, a seasoned producer who had worked with Mr. Gregory on Today, was tapped to help produce Mr. Gregory’s show on MSNBC, Race for the White House. Mr. Oppenheim, who has since left MSNBC to become vice president of Reveille Entertainment (the production company started by Ben Silverman, now the head of NBC Universal entertainment), told The Observer on Monday night that, if true, Mr. Gregory would be a natural fit for Meet the Press.
“He’s got great instincts when it comes to what area of stories to probe,” said Mr. Oppenheim. “I don’t think there’s much of a learning curve when it comes to politics. He knows that world as well as anyone. He gets great stuff out of people.”
“He brings great star power,” said a person familiar with the inner workings of NBC News. “He acts like a star and can be one. He’s certainly got the ego for it. He can be an aggressive questioner"as he showed in the White House Press Room. He was a dramatic and good and persistent questioner. And he’s not afraid to be disliked.”
“The trick that Russert pulled off, however, was to make it all about Russert and yet not to seem to be about Russert at all,” added our source. “That’s why people liked him and viewed him as a good inquisitor. The question is whether this guy can pull off the same trick.”
To date, Mr. Gregory has already hosted multiple shows on MSNBC, neither of which succeeded (à la Rachel Maddow) in developing much of a cult personal following for Mr. Gregory. As a result, many casual observers might wonder in the days to come why NBC might choose the guy with the worst ratings in their cable channel’s prime-time lineup for the most prestigious job in political television. But the truth is that while Mr. Gregory has not attracted much love during his stints on cable, nor has he stirred up much trouble. In the cable universe, not causing controversy is a death sentence. In the world of Sunday morning public-affairs programming, it’s a trait that has great appeal to network executives.
Back on Aug. 17, Mr. Gregory got a solo flight moderating Meet the Press. Along the way, he interviewed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; moderated a square-off between two candidate surrogates, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal; and presided over a political round table featuring Josh Green, Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd. Overall, the show went smoothly"if not remarkably. NBC won the ratings battle for the weekend with roughly 3.2 million total viewers (CBS’s Face the Nation had 2.5 million and ABC’s This Week had 2.4 million).
“This is the definitely the safest choice,” said one network staffer. “He’s a smart guy with the political chops. The question is going to be, can he maintain the audience? The most important thing will be making sure that Meet the Press continues to dominate when it comes to guests.”
And Mr. Gregory certainly has the will to dominate. Every year, Television critic Andrew Tyndall tallies up the time spent in front of the camera by all correspondents on the evening newscasts at CBS, NBC and ABC. In recent years, in a profession teeming with insatiable camera hogs, Mr. Gregory has dominated. In each of the past four years, Mr. Gregory has finished as either the single most heavily used reporter in network news or the second most. Not to mention that he is a relentless substitute anchor. Over Thanksgiving weekend, for instance, he was everywhere viewers looked on NBC, filling in on both Today and the Nightly News. Even his critics concede that Mr. Gregory has an incredible motor.
Unsurprisingly, his omnipresence has done his reputation more good among viewers and network executives than among some of his colleagues and inferiors.
“I think it’s a tragedy,” said one of his colleagues, about Mr. Gregory’s apparent ascent to the Meet the Press position. “It’s depressing. It shows that your skills as an inside fighter matter more than your skills as a journalist.”
“The last supposedly safe decision a network executive made was giving the CBS Evening News to Katie Couric,” said one TV insider. “That was considered the safest possible move. And look how that worked out.”
In fact, NBC may be contemplating an even safer move. What if it were possible to keep David Gregory at NBC and still keep everyone happy who wanted this job?
On Tuesday morning, Mike Allen of Politico posted a story stating that “network executives” had confirmed to him their plans to name Mr. Gregory moderator of the show. “The executives provided elliptical information,” wrote Mr. Allen, “that did not either raise or preclude the possibility that a supporting cast could be named along with Gregory.”
On Monday and Tuesday, several sources inside and outside of NBC News speculated to The Observer that NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker would eventually name a couple of current NBC staffers (such as Andrea Mitchell) to a beefed-up group of semi-permanent panelists.
“It seems very likely that no matter who winds up in the moderator chair, the panel will probably be more prominent that it was in the past,” said a former TV news executive. “Because whoever fills the anchor chair, even if they are a very experienced interviewer, we’re in a more p.c. world now, and there are a lot of different demographic boxes that NBC needs to check off. Also, even though it never seems to work, that’s another way for them to try and keep their passed-over talent happy.”
And unhappy talent may not be affordable at NBC right now. Not long ago, a large number of NBC News staffers were offered buyout packages. In recent weeks, the deadline for the buyouts has come and gone. And the latest rumor is that if NBC doesn’t receive enough buyout applications, newly minted D.C. bureau chief Mark Whitaker would soon begin laying off a number of his D.C. staff.
And so, several sources said, the decision was less about what great talent the network could afford to attract"Katie Couric! Ted Koppel!"but whom, given the shallow backbench of name-brand personalities, the network could not afford to lose.
With all the other big NBC gigs tied up for the foreseeable future, the only plum left to give out is Meet the Press. And if the reports hold up, it would seem, that last plum had to be dropped in Mr. Gregory’s mouth.
“It’s a time for reflection and change,” said our source. “Everyone is doing it. NBC is just being forced to do it in a more public manner.”