New host keeps a.m. titan on top

When Johnny Carson exited NBC’s “Tonight,” pundits predicted a major shakeup in the latenight wars. But it didn’t happen. When Katie Couric left the Peacock’s “Today,” the morning chatshows didn’t have the portended upheaval.  

And after longtime “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert died last June, many foresaw a shakeup in the Sunday-morning news wars. But so far, under its new host, former White House correspondent David Gregory, “Meet the Press” has retained its sizable lead over CBS’ “Face the Nation” and ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” garnering well over a million more total viewers than the second-place finisher and leaving its cable competish in the dust.

Says NBC News president Steve Capus, “There’s ‘Meet the Press,’ and there’s everyone else.”

True enough, but a couple of recent blips on the ratings radar and a newly bowed entry suggest the pecking order may not be set in stone.

With “Meet the Press” long considered the Cadillac of talkshows around the Beltway, the big question was whether there would be a tonal shift under Gregory, who took the reins Dec. 14.

So far, that really hasn’t happened, which is OK by Capus. “This is a time for evolution, not revolution,” he says. But, quoting a remark made by “MTP” interim host Tom Brokaw, Capus termed the 38-year-old Gregory’s anointment “a generational play.’ ” Asked if being in the sweet spot of the 25-54 news demo was a factor, Capus admits, “Yeah, I’ll run with that,” then adds, “It’s not the reason he got the job, but it doesn’t hurt.” The potential for longevity was also a factor, assumes Don Rieck, executive director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs: “You want to pick someone who’s young and who can be there for 15 years.”

Former NBC News chief Lawrence Grossman says of the Gregory nod, “It was a logical choice, and in retrospect an obvious choice.”

That’s certainly true when weighed against some of the names floated during the decision-making process. As the poster boy for cable-news combativeness, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews lacks the gentility required for the more salon-like environs of Sunday morning. Gwen Ifill of PBS “Washington Week in Review” and former ABC News lion Ted Koppel were also names that came up, but NBC is a network that puts a premium on promoting from within.

Adds Andrew Tyndall, publisher of TyndallReport.com, which monitors network news: “You earn your gravitas by doing the job. You don’t import it.” Of Gregory’s first month on the job, he opines, “He’s been disciplined in his questioning, he’s done his homework, he’s asked intelligent follow-ups.”

Grossman’s a bit more measured. “It will take a while to develop a character for the part,” he says. “The history of ‘Meet the Press,’ starting way back with (1966-75 anchor) Larry Spivak, is that you need a sharp questioner who can get away with murder.” His take on Gregory’s performance so far? “He’s got a nice balance of personality, wit and professionalism that I think may be able to fill Russert’s shoes in an adequate way.” Nevertheless, Grossman contends, “I’m sure he’ll have a tough time competitively.” After all, he adds, “Loyalties are very fragile in the news business.”

Gregory’s competitors may take some comfort in Grossman’s words and the hope that Gregory’s boffo numbers to date (he’s averaged nearly 4.6 total viewers in his first four weeks, on par with Russert in the same period following the 2004 election) could represent a honeymoon period during which viewers are sampling Gregory but have yet to make him appointment television.

If the other Sunday morning news shows are to make inroads, they’d best do it quickly. “Now’s the time to take the ship down while it’s transferring command,” Rieck says.

That point hasn’t been lost on CBS, whose “Face the Nation” finished 2008 up 24% in total viewers (3.15 million compared with 2.55 million in 2007). Season to date, 2008-09 is its best frame since 2001-02, and “Nation” has prevailed over second-place mainstay ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” in some recent weeks. 

“There’s clearly an opportunity,” says CBS News D.C. bureau chief Chris Isham. The intro of Gregory as host of “Press,” says Isham, “has freed up some viewers, and we’re starting to see some mobility there.” 

In a daypart that, on paper at least, values gravitas, Isham notes that 71-year-old “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer represents an edge for the Eye. “Bob brings an enormous amount of weight and experience to the job,” he says. “He understands what makes Washington tick and is very capable of communicating that in a way that people can understand.”  

There’s also good news at News Corp: Although a distant fourth nationally, “Fox News Sunday” grew by 10% in 2008 to 1.4 million viewers. It’s also flourishing among arguably the most influential audience of all, residents of Washington D.C., where it finished second to “Meet the Press” last year in the 25-54 demo.

“The market is so important, because all of the people who come on these shows live and work in D.C. and read the papers in D.C.,” explains “FNS” executive producer Marty Ryan. Despite Gregory’s numbers thus far, he claims, “There’s no question that the Sunday-morning landscape has changed so much since Tim’s death.”

Going forward, Ryan says, “The whole time period is in play,” the competition for guest booking will heat up and the field will level a bit, albeit slowly given that the competitors get “only one bite at the apple every week” compared with most news-oriented shows, which are daily.

Despite falling behind “Face the Nation” in recent weeks, ABC’s “This Week” may have the most to gain from the “Meet the Press” change. “I think it gives a new life to Stephanopoulos’ show,” says Grossman, acknowledging that the 47-year-old ABC anchor is a contemporary of Gregory.

Andy Donchin, director of media investment at Carat USA, concurs: “I don’t see a great loss for NBC, but I only see upside for ABC moving forward, because Stephanopoulos is in the process of making himself a bigger name.”

The ABC host, who drew his largest aud to date on Jan. 11 for an exclusive interview with President-elect Barack Obama (4.34 million), knows things won’t change overnight. “We’re just going to do what we can to get the best bookings, do the best roundtables and chip away at it,” Stephanopoulos says.

CNN is hoping to make some inroads itself with the Jan. 18 debut of its new Sunday-morning bloc, “State of the Union With John King.” Airing from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., its four-hour sprawl makes it the only Sunday-morning show to compete directly with all of the others, and it aims to offer meaty newsmaker interviews as well as reported segments and news updates. (The 10 o’clock hour will feature Howard Kurtz’s media-focused “Reliable Sources.)

CNN VP of Washington-based programming Sam Feist says “State,” which will inevitably feature King and the electronic Magic Wall that garnered so much attention during the primary and election season, aims “to bring coverage of politics into the 20 century.

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