NBC doesn’t understand Sunday morning television

Media observers say that Charlie Rose, the unparalleled practitioner of the long form interview, can save the imperiled brand that Tim Russert built.

Rose is known as a masterfully inquisitive and curious conversationalist, whose non-threatening but still serious and intellectual style have secured him a prominent spot on the highest echelon of our body politic.

Rumor has it that Rose is interested in the enviable task.

Deborah Turness, NBC News’ recently installed president, has been weathering criticism for her handling of the network’s programming in recent months.

The New York Post has reported that many NBC insiders have questioned her expensive extension of Matt Laur’s contract — which includes a $20 million annual salary and helicopter commutes to his home in the Hamptons — after the Today Show’s long declining ratings under Lauer’s tenure.

The program is now badly trailing ABC’s Good Morning America, and Lauer’s presence has since been relegated to the first two hours of the show. Following the disastrous ouster of Ann Curry, a nationally endeared personality who was central to the brand for nearly two decades, Lauer’s favorability numbers have plummeted. Lauer is widely credited with orchestrating the outer of Curry, whose teary departure from the show revealed Lauer’s cold and callous behavior towards a woman whose national stature matched his own.

Lauer felt threatened by Curry, and was worried that he would be blamed for the program’s long declining ratings. His contract negotiations were approaching on the horizon, and some say that he pushed Curry out to ensure a stronger negotiating posture for himself.

But, for Turness, that storm simmers on the back burner.

Her most recent firestorm comes from her handling of Sunday morning programming. Critics say that NBC is tone deaf. Chuck Todd, formerly the network’s political director, was appointed host of the network’s iconic brand, Meet the Press, three weeks ago. The program continues to trail its competitors badly. 

A tough act to follow 

Meet the Press boasts being the longest running program on broadcast television, and reached it’s high water mark under Tim Russert, a proud son of South Buffalo. Under Russert’s long running reign in the anchor chair, the program was know as ‘the hardest interview on television,’ and considered the nation’s program of record.

His interviews set the tone of the political discourse for the coming week and played an influential news making role for decades.

After Russert’s sudden death in June of 2008, the program was temporarily hosted by Tom Brokaw, through the 2008 election cycle. David Gregory was then appointed anchor. Since his appointment, the show has slipped into third place among Sunday morning news programs, and the once iconic brand has been badly tarnished.

Gregory’s liberal politics detracted from how issues were framed. He badly managed round table conversations on the program in ways that were obvious to viewers. Gregory’s Hollywood smile and casually serious posture only exacerbated the disconnect between him and the audience, and undermined his credibility as a trustworthy journalist.

In some ways, Gregory had become the embodiment of an elite national media that is seen as untrustworthy, liberal, lazy, biased, too cozy with politicians, too manipulated by lobbyists, and lacking the intellectual heft that would make news programming a worthwhile experience.

Russet had been known for his preparedness and the research he conducted before walking into an interview. His even handed toughness was renowned and trusted by the elite and masses alike.

Turness chooses the Chuck Todd strategy

Perhaps most concerning to her executives, The New York Post reports, has been Turness’ selection of NBC political director Chuck Todd as Gregory’s replacement. His wonkish style and ordinary guy looks were less concerning than recent media reports suggest.

But they were very concerned.  Todd was perceived as deeply politically entrenched, non-journalistic, and whose perspective was easily manipulable by DC’s chattering class of politicos.

They say that Turness decided to take Sunday morning into a showier, louder, more divisive, less serious direction. That much is evident in the new format introduced by Todd, which includes a panel of journalists, awkward transitions between segments, and a set that is unfit for Sunday morning.

“It looks like it’s a show in prime time. The lighting isn’t soft enough, and it’s too glitzy. People don’t want to wake up to that on Sunday morning,” says one junior NBC executive. “And they certainly don’t want to spend their Sunday morning listening to journalists sparing and bickering.”

“The Sunday morning viewer is more educated, more reflective, more thoughtful, more informed, and more interested than the average viewer. They disdain when we put talking heads in front of them to regurgitate party=prepared talking points,” she says. “At best, viewers feel like we are trying to dupe them; at worst, they think we’re calling them rubes.”

“Sunday morning should be softer, more reflective, bigger picture, with an older, more objective and substantive perspective,” the same executive said. “People don’t like or trust reporters. Why in the hell would we shove a panel of them right behind — what should be — news making interviews?”

So, what would you do — if you were NBC News president — to save Meet the Press, I asked.

“First, I would replace the current anchor with a journalist who projected stature, intellect, and integrity — a statesman among newsmen — and the only person I can think of capable of the task would be Charlie Rose. Maybe Dan Rather.”

“Second, I would rid the show of reporters and columnists under 55 years old, except on very rare occasion.”

“Third, I would focus the program on substantive interviews and sophisticated discussion on the most important issues of the day. Not just politics. People are craving real substance.”

In fairness, other NBC insiders who are supportive of a more “traditional, serious, and substantive direction” have floated other names, not just Rose. They include Dan Rather, who currently broadcasts on Current TV; Gwen Ifill, of PBS’s The News Hour; and Martha Raddatz, of ABC News.

The Sunday morning landscape

CBS’s Sunday Morning, a non-political news magazine, dominates ratings and provides Face the Nation with an envious ‘lead in’ from the popular program. Face the Nation dominates the morning’s politically oriented news programs, with ABC’s This Week taking second place. Meet the Press is in third place. Cable competitors include Fox News Sunday and CNN’s State of the Union.

“Older, more serious journalists who project stature and depth, and who convey a breadth of experience in their tone, are the programs that succeed on Sunday,” says another NBC staffer. “I don’t understand why we are going for young reporters bickering. The audience wants older, well respected thinkers reflecting. That’s a very different viewer experience.”

Some say that Turness’ ineptitude stems from her British background. She moved to New York from London to take her current job. She doesn’t understand the subtleties in market tastes and audience attitudes in largely regional American media markets, they say.

It’s unclear how long Turness might last in her position. But Sunday mornings will certainly be one key benchmark of her performance.

Charlie Rose, an obvious successor

Few journalists have the stature and credibility that Rose projects. His longtime one-on-one long form interview program, The Charlie Rose Show, has become an iconic PBS brand. The plain round wooden table and black set have carved out a special place in the public discourse: an interview show where CEOs, generals, politicians, scientists, authors, artists, poets, foreign heads of state, and venture capitalists alike all feel comfortable enough to expose their thinking on the issues of the day.

Sunday morning competes on substance, or so goes the old industry adage.

Rose has the intellectual heft that is lacking among NBC reporters. The network has a very large back bench of young reporters — especially at sister network MSNBC — but whom lack stature and are perceived to be biased and insincere.

NBC has come under fire for its liberal editorial leanings and oftentimes political motivated coverage, which observers have called an effective strategy in securing ‘softball’ interviews with the President and Obama Administration figures.

If Rose could be convinced to become that central to NBC’s brand, it would go a long way in restoring the news network’s credibility in the public consciousness. But then again, Charlie Rose may not want his reputation tainted by NBC News.

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