NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ Plans Documentary Film Festival (EXCLUSIVE)

MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r)
William B. Plowman /NBC

If Chuck Todd has his way, NBC’s “Meet the Press” will be as known for political documentaries within five years as it is for snaring exclusive interviews with senators and Cabinet members.

The venerable Sunday public-affairs mainstay is joining forces with the American Film Institute for a film festival to be held in November in Washington D.C. Submissions for what is expected to be a slate of seven short-length documentary films are now being accepted. It’s a surprising extension of a TV mainstay that is in the midst of its 70th year on the air.

“’Meet the Press’’ is the long-form of TV-news programs,” said the seemingly ubiquitous political-news anchor, holding forth from a makeshift office Tuesday in NBC’s New York headquarters. “Why should we not be the place to do this?”

He’s not trying to compete with places like Vice Media or CNN, both of which have gained notice in recent years for documentaries. Instead, he’s vying with the shifting attention span of a rising generation of viewers, whose desire for on-demand video renders obsolete the concept of so-called appointment television.  “Everyone is trying to figure out how to get in front of millennials. I think the millennial generation learns as much visually as they do the old-fashioned way, by the book,” said Todd. “We are no longer in the business of telling people how they should consume information. Our job is to provide depth and information in any way they want to consume it.” Under Todd, “Meet the Press” also fuels a weekday show on MSNBC as well as a regular podcast.

The “Meet the Press” film festival will feature contemporary documentaries of 40 minutes in length or less that focus on untold stories of American politics. Films selected for the festival will be eligible for up to $5,000 in finishing support from NBC News for post-production costs, including licensing of third‐party material, and are likely to get some sort of nod during “Meet the Press” on Sundays or during the week on MSNBC.

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The anchor is open to a wide array of potential topics. Could a documentary illustrate how consumption of the media has changed, or explore the rise of partisan media through history? Might a film analyze how earlier American forays into Afghanistan have affected the U.S. presence there today, or how politics became so linked to celebrity? “I wish I could tell you the perfect documentary. If I knew the perfect documentary, I’d be making it,” said Todd. He hopes to curate a slate that is diverse in subject matter and political leanings and hails from a wide range of places.

The American Film Institute, celebrating its 50th anniversary, has politics in its background as well. It was established in 1967 after President Lyndon mandated a program to bring together artists, educators and young people eager to make film their life’s work.

Todd, who got his start in journalism at The Hotline, a daily political briefing often considered must-have in congressional offices and the Washington, D.C. operations of major news outlets, has been eager to push “Meet the Press” to new venues so as to stay relevant to younger audiences. He may be closer to them than others. At 45, he is a few years younger than CNN’s Jake Tapper or CBS’ John Dickerson, and from a different generation than ABC’s George Stephanopoulos or Fox’s Chris Wallace.

Other Sunday hosts have faced similar challenges. Todd points to Tim Russert, who pushed an expansion of “Meet the Press” from 30 minutes to an hour. “He realized there was too much to try and do in 30 minutes. It was clear the viewers wanted that.”

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He cites ESPN’s critically acclaimed “30 for 30” documentaries as a potential model for what he hopes a “Meet the Press” effort – he used the phrase “MTP Docs” – might become. That ESPN franchise has broadened to include everything from hour-long films to shorts to the critically acclaimed miniseries “O.J.: Made in America.” “I hope in two years what we are doing with documentaries and how we are doing it is compared to ESPN,” he said. “’30 for 30’ is the gold standard of how to do this in the 21st century.”

He thinks “Meet the Press” fans will embrace the documentary format. “You could make the argument that documentaries are the new books,” Todd said. “When it comes to public policy and history right now, I think the most talked about conversations that we are having seem to be generated by documentaries as much as they might be by a great new book. ‘Meet the Press’ belongs in that space. This is step one.”

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