On the morning after Tim Russert’s tragic death, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was on the phone talking admiringly about his late colleague and the tough competition among Sunday morning talk-show hosts, when he recalled an old Looney Tunes cartoon about a wolf and a sheep dog.
Although the two were cordial while punching into work and during lunch breaks, the relationship abruptly changed once the whistle blew and the shift began. Russert was “fun and loved trading gossip,” Stephanopoulos said, but when the “clock hits Sunday morning, he's out there trying to beat you.”
And week after week, Russert beat everyone.
So now NBC is faced with the unenviable task of trying to replace someone who — judging from the heartfelt tributes from political and journalistic luminaries — appears irreplaceable. In addition to “Meet the Press” being the highest-rated Sunday public affairs show, Russert could also boast of being the longest-running host for television’s longest-running program.
“I can’t imagine them going outside NBC,” said Andrew Tyndall, an independent television analyst, who added that he considers the network’s news operation the strongest in television.
Tyndall said that if he were NBC News President Steve Capus, a short list for the position would include White House correspondent David Gregory, chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell — both of whom have guest-hosted “Meet the Press” — as well as political director Chuck Todd and “Hardball” host Chris Matthews. Two dark-horse candidates could be “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough or perhaps former “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw — that is, if he had any interest in returning to such a prominent role.
Each day, Gregory, Mitchell, Matthews and Scarborough fill slots on MSNBC, and Todd has been a fixture on NBC and MSNBC throughout the 2008 race. While all strong candidates, none has yet to dominate the competition as Russert did.
Against him, Stephanopoulos on “This Week,” Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” and Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” all competed for second place.
In May, “Meet the Press” brought in 4.13 million weekly viewers, which is about 1.5 million ahead of “Face the Nation,” its closest competitor. And each week, the NBC public relations team blasts out news releases that not only trumpet another ratings victory but also include oftentimes lopsided percentages.
The most recent release following a head-to-head battle: “On Sunday, the Russert-moderated program was No. 1, averaging 4.115 million total viewers, +55 percent more (1,465,000) than second place ABC's "This Week" 2.650 million, a +65 percent advantage (+1,620,000) over third place CBS' "Face the Nation" 2.495 million and a +195 percent lead (+2,719,000) over FOX News Sunday's 1.396 million. ‘Meet the Press’ has now placed first in total viewers for 89 consecutive weeks and 353 of the past 354 weeks (when everyone is at full coverage).”
Yes, that’s more than 6 1/2 years with just one loss.
But Russert didn’t inherit such a winning streak — he earned it. In fact, when Russert took over the job in 1991, “Meet the Press” was mired in third place, behind both “Face the Nation” and “This Week.”
Despite his fun-loving, gregarious persona, when it came to preparation, Russert was widely considered one of the best in the business. Through some tenacious interviews and an ability to break news on Sunday mornings, the show became a ritual for millions. Under Russert, “Meet the Press” grew from a half-hour to a full hour, and was the show to beat by the end of the 1990s, and has remained so since — which makes the decision on a relacement a critical one for NBC. The brand, after all, had become as much “Russert” as “Meet the Press,” and it will be an uphill battle for any new host to lift their name over the show’s marquee.
And how will any new host follow the act of a man who is being remembered as one of the greatest interviewers of all time?
On Saturday morning — in another display of broadcast network détente that has been the norm since Russert’s death — both Stephanopoulos and Schieffer appeared on the “Today” show, where host Matt Lauer asked about competing with Russert.
“Tim and I butted heads for 18 years. Every Sunday morning, week in, week out,” said Schieffer, who added that going up against Russert made his show better.
Wallace, who hosted “Meet the Press” from 1987-88, dubbed Russert the “king of Washington” on Fox.
“Even though I was his competitor — I’m flattering myself even to say that — he was the king here,” Wallace continued. “He was the most important, influential reporter in Washington.”
Wallace’s opinion isn’t an isolated one, and that’s what makes choosing the next moderator such a difficult decision — even though Russert personally spoke of himself as the temporary steward of a public institution, one that predated his tenure by more than four decades. He was just being humble.
Clearly, NBC didn’t view Russert as any temporary host. In late 2001, NBC announced that Russert had signed a 12-year contract, an unprecedented commitment in the fickle world of network television, where the public’s tastes are expected to change with next season’s schedule. With that contract, the network’s executives essentially said that if it’s Sunday, it had to be Russert.
Not surprisingly, this Sunday’s episode will break from the 2008 horse race, as Brokaw — who looked completely grief-stricken delivering the news on MSNBC — anchors a special edition of “Meet the Press.”
Several regulars will be on hand, including MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle, husband-and-wife strategists Mary Matalin and James Carville, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, PBS’s Gwen Ifill, former NBC correspondent Maria Shriver, and executive producer Betsy Fischer.
And there will be tributes on each of the Sunday morning shows.
Schieffer, currently on vacation in Paris, told Politico just hours after the news broke that he wanted to “do some kind of commentary” but, at the same time, couldn’t host “Face the Nation” from France. What exactly he planned to do was still up in the air at the time. “I’m not really sure this has sunk in yet,” Schieffer said.
It’s still sinking in across the network, too, evident in the hours of time spent on air sharing anecdotes about and rolling clips of Russert.
When asked whether NBC is taking any initial steps in finding a new host for “Meet the Press,” Todd responded “not yet” over e-mail.
“The network truly is still mourning,” Todd added.
Of course NBC has a deep roster of on-air talent, but there’s no one that fits easily into the clean-up spot. It should be noted that Russert’s tasks far exceeded the Sunday morning hour spent sparring with senators and talking shop with reporters. Russert not only ran the Washington bureau but also provided political analysis on “Today,” “NBC Nightly News” and MSNBC. On election nights, he was the only television journalist in the industry with the gravitas to declare — as he did after the Indiana and North Carolina primaries — that the Democratic race was over, a story the rest of the pack quickly picked up.
Jon Friedman, media columnist for MarketWatch, was early out of the gate declaring that“NBC will need someone who is steady, reassuring, calm and analytical,” and concluded that “Gregory, familiar to NBC viewers for his White House coverage, should get the job.” Matthews, he said, should not get the job.
Although Matthews has his own syndicated Sunday show, which leads into “Meet the Press” in some markets, his temperament is much different from Russert's. Tyndall said that the because Matthews is “much more argumentative and opinionated, ['Meet the Press' would] lose the high ground that Russert’s spent 20 years generating.”
Gregory not only has filled in for Russert but also has made himself a utility man for both NBC, where the White House correspondent occasionally guest-hosts on “Today,” and MSNBC, where he hosts “Race for the White House.”
Understandably, few close to Russert are going to start speculating about who’ll be the next moderator (as well as Washington bureau chief). When asked by phone, Stephanopoulos said it wasn’t time to discuss that. An NBC spokesman also said it was premature to talk of future plans.
But the political horse race — which Russert seemed endlessly thrilled to cover — will go on and so will “Meet the Press.”
NBC has sent out a release for Sunday's show: “Our issues this Sunday: Remembering Tim Russert: The moderator chair will be empty this Sunday in his honor."
“We'll do our job,” Stephanopoulos said, “but we'll be thinking of Tim.”