If NBC News needs any evidence that it should stick with David Gregory as the host of “Meet the Press,” it comes from the hometown of the late Tim Russert.
I’ll explain shortly.
The fall of “Meet the Press” into third place nationally behind CBS’ “Face the Nation” and ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” has become a national story.
It accelerated a few weeks ago when the Washington Post ran an article about the pressure Gregory is under to improve things.
Everyone knew that replacing the extraordinarily popular Russert was going to be about as difficult as following legendary National Football League coaches Vince Lombardi, Don Shula and Bill Parcells.
But the “Meet the Press” slide into third place nationally among Sunday talk shows set off alarm bells. The Post story about the program’s ratings slide led to other reports – later denied – that NBC hired a “psychological consultant” to interview Gregory’s wife and friends.
My immediate reaction was to see how Gregory is doing in Russert country.
And surprise, surprise, he isn’t doing that badly at all.
Channel 2’s ratings for “Meet the Press” seems to have recovered from the big hits the program took here in 2011.
They weren’t much different under Gregory during the February 2014 sweeps than they were during the last sweeps period before Russert died on June 13, 2008.
“Meet the Press” had a 4.5 rating under Gregory in February, the same rating it had in Russert’s final sweeps period before his death in May 2008. Of course, this past February sweeps deserves an asterisk because NBC got a boost from the Sochi Olympics.
But there is other evidence that things haven’t changed to a scary degree. During the last four sweeps periods from February 2013 to February 2014 under Gregory, “Meet the Press” averaged a 4.0 rating on Channel 2.
Russert’s show from February 2007 to February 2008 averaged a 4.5 rating on Channel 2, with almost all of the difference coming from a 6.5 rating in February 2008 when NBC carried the Beijing Olympics.
“Meet the Press” under Russert was No. 2 here to CBS’ “Sunday Morning” from 9 to 10 a.m. It remains No. 2 under Gregory.
The primary change in morning viewership here concerns the increasing popularity of “Sunday Morning.”
In the four sweeps periods from February 2013 to February 2014, “Sunday Morning” averaged almost an 8 rating on Channel 4. That’s double what “MTP” averages, and about 20 percent higher than in Russert’s final year.
The “Sunday Morning” lead-in has helped “Face the Nation” with Bob Schieffer. It averaged about a 4.9 rating in February for the half hour starting at 10:30 a.m. That’s higher than “MTP” gets for an hour and about a 40 percent gain from the “Face” ratings in Russert’s final year. The shows don’t compete head-to-head in this market.
“This Week,” which airs at 10 a.m. on Channel 7, is not competitive in this market because it is on the weakest network affiliate. It averaged a 1.5 rating during those four sweeps periods.
All those figures seem to indicate that Gregory is doing reasonably well in Russert country on one of NBC’s stronger network affiliates. And the strength of affiliates is a key factor in how well morning shows do, as evidenced by how Western New York ignores Stephanopoulos.
Last week, Gregory responded to the national reports about the “Meet the Press” decline that included the phrase “psychological consultant.” He told a Washington, D.C., radio “there was never any psychological consultant hired. That’s utter fiction, that’s gossip reporting gone wild.”
NBC has since said it was working with a “brand consultant” with the goal of developing a marketing campaign around Gregory’s strengths and weaknesses.
Admittedly, my well-documented love of “Sunday Morning” has diminished my viewing of Gregory’s “Meet the Press.”
“Meet the Press” was must-see TV for me during the Russert years. I liked him very much personally, respected his ability to ask probing questions in search of answers for regular Americans and especially enjoyed it when he didn’t let interview subjects off the hook with pat answers. I also enjoyed his repartee with his roundtable of experts.
Russert managed the balancing act of being tough when needed and being warm when needed.
I’m no consultant, but my advice for Gregory would be to start revealing more of himself so viewers might warm up to him. At the end of last Sunday’s program that was exactly what Gregory did.
The discussion turned to President Obama’s answer to question at a town hall meeting about his biggest regret. The president said it was not spending enough time with his mother, who was a year older than he is now when she died.
“That was classic Obama, that’s why he won and classically why he won the last time,” said new roundtable panelist Mallory Factor. “This is the reason he is president of the United States and Mitt Romney lost.”
Another panelist, Rich Lowry, remarked that he planned to call his mother as soon as the show ended.
And soon it was Gregory’s turn to reveal something about himself.
“I remember in a synagogue growing up and hearing about the importance of making a point to your loved ones, to your friends of saying ‘I love you,’ ” said Gregory. “We’re so grateful to be in this moment. We should rejoice in it and tell somebody how much we love them. So I love all of you.”
The panel laughed at the end of his story. My inner cynic thought Gregory’s reveal was the first sign of a consultant’s advice. It was a little hokey. But it also was humanizing. And that’s the area that Gregory needs to improve.
During the rest of the hour, Gregory illustrated that he was a penetrating questioner as “Meet the Press” went through a variety of topics. The show’s pace is much faster than it was in the Russert years, a possible reaction to viewers’ diminishing attention spans.
The topics were pretty much the same ones covered by the ABC and CBS competition a week ago: The controversy surrounding the recorded remarks by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, the United States’ role in the Middle East peace talks, the situation in Ukraine, the threat of Islam, and the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII as saints that day.
Gregory asked smart questions of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and had strong follow-ups, which illustrated why he was chosen to replace Russert and why NBC News President Deborah Turness recently gave him a vote of confidence.
It may be tempting to channel Lloyd Bentsen and say about Gregory that “I knew Tim Russert, Tim Russert was a friend of mine and you’re no Tim Russert.”
But I’m rooting for the guy, especially now that he is taking a beating and is the underdog.
Gregory will never be as loved as Russert will be – certainly not in Buffalo.
But if Buffalo viewership is any indication, NBC’s vote of confidence is warranted and it would be wise to give Gregory a chance to grow in the job – as well as on the audience.