Monday, August 25, 2014

Weakly News

I knew things weren’t going well for Meet the Press. I had read that its ratings had sunk since the sudden and untimley death of its long-time host Tim Russert six years ago.

People decided that Russert’s successor, David Gregory, was the problem. In April there were bizarre reports that NBC had actually undertaken a psychological evaluation of him, apparently trying to figure out how to make him more the kind of person people would want to watch on television on a Sunday morning. Now Gregory is gone. He wasn’t allowed to do even one more show after his unceremonious dismissal, to say good-bye to the viewers. And he wasn’t just removed from hosting duties. He is gone from NBC altogether. He had to sign an agreement not to badmouth his former employer. It reminds me of the time that an employee was caught pirating software at a company where I worked and security made him clean out his desk on the spot and then escorted him off the premises with no chance to say good-bye to anybody. Kind of humiliating.

I also knew things weren’t going well for Meet the Press because I used to watch it (actually, listen to it, as a podcast) and and then I stopped. If you try to listen to too many Sunday news programs, you wind up getting a lot of repetition. Often the same government official will be interviewed on more than one of them, so you end up listening to the same answers over and over. If anything is different from one interview to another, it’s the questions—which tell you more about the interviewer than about the interviewee.

Since there are only so many hours in the day, I usually limit myself to two Sunday morning news podcasts a week. Currently those are ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopolous and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. CBS’s Face the Nation might have made the cut, but that podcast is full of too many annoying ads.

To be fair, Tim Russert was a hard act to follow, and whoever replaced him was going to have a struggle emerging from his shadow. Russert was a political animal who loved the issues and the discussion. He knew his stuff, and he knew the questions to ask. His interviews were in-depth. It was not unusual for an interview to take up an entire segment of the show, if not the entire show. Russert came by his acumen through experience in the political trenches. Earlier on, he had worked for some major New York politicians, Senator Daniel Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo. Despite the fact that he was clearly a Democrat, he always understood the arguments on all sides of an issue and made sure all those sides got their airing. He may have had his own partisan leanings, but it didn’t matter because he was generally fair. For political junkies, during the Russert era (and before) Meet the Press was must-see viewing.

That changed after Gregory took over. But how much of the ratings decline was his fault and how much had to do with changes at NBC News? As the business strategy for the company’s cable channel MSNBC became more focused on catering to the left-wing demographic (being the Fox News of the left, as some observers put it), the lines got blurry—at least in public perception—between the news division and the stable of personalties hosting opinion-oriented shows on cable. The same problem is regularly raised about Fox News. Critics always lump the prime-time opinionators together with the journalists who are doing straight news reporting. But Fox News was born as a cable channel and so has always had that identity. NBC’s news division, on the other hand, has a long and prestigious history. Seeing their journalists as part of a continuum with hosts such as Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews, Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz has tended to alienate conservative-leaning viewers and maybe even some moderate ones.

But the tainting of serious news with related opinion programs doesn’t really explain NBC’s troubles. After all, Fox News uses the same formula for a moderate-to-conservative audience and it sits atop the ratings pile for cable news channels. MSNBC’s ratings have been well behind Fox’s, and the channel was recently surpassed by the previously languishing CNN. The original cable news channel has recently been able to improve its viewer numbers through nonstop coverage of a series of ongoing news events that have riveted public attention—beginning with the disappearance of that Malaysian airliner.

So unless you believe that there are simply more conservative TV news viewers out there than liberal ones, something else is going on at NBC. True, the nightly evening newscast with Brian Williams has been leading its network competitors, but the overall audience is shrinking. People are getting more of their news from other sources, and it’s hard to measure exactly where, since there are so many sources now available in so many different and new media.

When it comes to Sunday morning, Gregory was definitely a big part of the problem—if not the entire problem. I found him hard to watch. Where Russert was all business and nearly prosecutorial in his interviews, Gregory strove to be chummy, at times ingratiating and occasionally fawning. Where Russert always seemed to be of the same stature of the people he was talking to, Gregory could come off as obsequious. No wonder they brought in the psychologist. They needed him to be more of an alpha male. Or actually, just an alpha. When they brought in substitute hosts like Erin Burnett or Savannah Guthrie, there was a noticeable improvement.

Will Chuck Todd do any better? He is nothing if not a political wonk, so maybe. But the real question is whether the traditional Sunday morning news program has outlived its usefulness. As with weekly news magazines like Time and Newsweek, the weekly news round-up seems less relevant in the era of a virtual 24/7 news cycle. On the other hand, the delivery of “all news all the time” doesn’t leave consumers much time for perspective or context. Maybe we actually need those Sunday (or whatever day) weekly shows more than ever. But maybe they also need to do some evolving in order to catch up with the rest of the world.

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