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5 myths about the Sunday talk shows

Posted Sept. 04, 2014, at 3:15 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 12, 2014, at 6:07 p.m.

Last weekend, Chuck Todd of NBC News officially joined the ranks of journalists assigned to host the venerable Sunday-morning network news programs. Though often derided as wonky and formulaic, these shows retain value — journalistic and financial — in a fractured media world. So let’s dispel some common misconceptions about them. If it’s Sunday, it’s “Five Myths.”

1. Nobody watches them anymore.

In July, the most recent sweeps period, ABC News’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” averaged 2.7 million viewers. This exceeds the combined print and digital subscribers of the Sunday New York Times (slightly more than 2.5 million) and nearly matches viewership of the Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” (2.8 million average in July), the top-rated program on the top-rated cable news network.

In the face of such indicators, two key facts power the myth of poor viewing for the Sunday shows. The first is that far fewer viewers tune in than during the old three-network era. In 1977, for example, the top-ranked “Meet the Press” on NBC drew 6 million viewers weekly. The second is that the Sunday-morning audience skews to the over-54 set, a cohort less likely to spout off on blogs, Facebook and Twitter with snarky comments about the shows.

“There is, let’s say, a disconnect between these shows and normal human Americans,” Jason Linkins wrote in a recent Huffington Post piece excoriating the programs. He is correct in at least one sense: The shows’ audiences are wealthier, better educated and more politically informed than almost any other group of normal human Americans. That’s why they maintain a premium among advertisers.

2. They don’t make money for the networks.

“The Sunday shows are not major profit centers,” the Hollywood Reporter noted when covering David Gregory’s recent departure from “Meet the Press.” Though they do not match the enormous sums generated by their weekday-morning counterparts, the Sunday-morning shows do, in fact, make huge profits. Variety estimated last year’s revenues as $55 million for “Meet the Press,” $25 million for CBS’s “Face the Nation” and $21 million for “This Week.”

When he died suddenly in 2008, “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert reportedly earned $5 million annually. That seems like a lot, but it’s peanuts compared with the revenue the show raked in under his direction. By 2000, after Russert increased audience ratings by 52 percent over nine years, the program reportedly earned annual profits of nearly $50 million for NBC — and it kept going strong over the final years of Russert’s tenure. Consider this comparison: One economic analysis of NBC’s coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics concluded that the network’s most-watched sporting event that year generated a $31 million profit.

On the revenue side, the Sunday-morning news programs air year-round (no summer hiatus) and are broadcast on almost every affiliate, creating enormous local as well as national advertising opportunities. And all the expensive news budget items — travel, accommodation for large crews, unexpected personnel costs, equipment transport — simply don’t exist.

3. The shows don’t make news; guests just recite talking points.

The Sunday talk shows have long made news — and continue to do so — because they are America’s finest launching pad for political trial balloons. Here are just a few of the many instances when the programs have played a key role in American politics.

On Saturday, March 29, 1952, President Harry Truman announced at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Washington that he would not seek reelection. The following morning, Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson appeared on “Meet the Press,” and his advisers later said his skillful performance helped propel him toward the Democratic nomination. In December 2002, John Kerry announced his intention to seek the 2004 Democratic nomination on the same program. Between December 2001 and March 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney made many memorable appearances on “Meet the Press,” arguing that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to terrorism.

And when Vice President Joe Biden “accidently” told David Gregory on “Meet the Press” in May 2012 that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage, the so-called gaffe was immediately (and correctly) read by the Washington press corps for what it was: an attempt to declare support for gay marriage while preserving deniability about a policy change in an election year. It worked.

4. The shows are so formulaic that the hosts don’t matter.

The shows do look a lot alike, but their predictability is precisely the reason the host matters. The host is now the most isolated variable in the format, with networks gambling millions of dollars on each new face.

The shows were not always so predictable. Before the tabloid 1990s, when the programs all chased the same guests — anybody connected to O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky — the lineups were more diverse, displaying thoughtful commentary from poet Robert Frost, doctor Jonas Salk, even boxing legend Muhammad Ali. There was a time when “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press” were unofficially prohibited by management from booking the same guests. But once the ratings chase became irresistible, the shows became more imitative, leading ultimately to the “full Ginsburg” — named for Lewinsky’s lawyer, William Ginsburg, who was the first guest to appear on each Sunday-morning news show on the same day, Feb. 1, 1998.

When a journalist such as the late David Broder logs more than 400 appearances on “Meet the Press,” and senators such as Bob Dole and John McCain total more than 50 apiece, it seems clear that too much conventional wisdom has been purveyed. But the most successful hosts and panelists find ways to enliven and educate within a predictable structure. They prepare with dedication and can be combative without seeming unfriendly or ungracious. Russert’s unique skill was to be confrontational and gregarious at the same time.

5. No one will be as good as Russert.

Yes, each host is unique, and none will possess the singular attributes of Russert, whose shadow still looms over “Meet the Press.” But recall that when Lawrence Spivak retired as the show’s host in 1975, many believed that he, too, was irreplaceable.

Arguing that there will never be another Russert misses the point. There was never another Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, but Roone Arledge and Peter Jennings successfully reinvented the nightly newscast, while today Brian Williams continues to transform the anchor model. And were Russert still with us, he probably would have updated his show for our social-media-driven time.

Also, the obsession over the (usually male) faces in front of the camera obscures essential contributions made by these programs’ talented behind-the-scenes production teams. “Meet the Press” was co-created and originally co-hosted by Martha Rountree, and even before Lesley Stahl replaced George Herman as moderator in 1983, “Face the Nation” compiled a fine record with producers such as Sylvia Westerman, Mary Yates and Joan Shorenstein Barone. And former “Meet the Press” executive producer Betsy Fischer Martin deserves much credit for the show’s success in the Russert years.

These shows were often willing to take chances on personnel who were denied opportunities elsewhere in the network news divisions. Each host, and every producer, leaves these programs having transformed them.

Michael Socolow is an associate professor in the department of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.

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