NBC wonders: What makes David Gregory tick?

Meet the Press has aired for nearly 70 years on NBC (since 1947), and has spent most of that time as the top-rated Sunday interview show. Since Tim Russert’s untimely death and David Gregory’s succession, however, the venerable show has declined considerably, falling behind CBS’ Face the Nation in terms of overall ratings and the key 25-50 demo, even though host Bob Schieffer is far older than Gregory. Any network facing these circumstances would undertake some serious probing to discover the problem.

But does that include psychological screening for a man whose been at the network for almost two decades? The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi says yes:

The Sunday shows — which comprise what Schieffer calls “the smartest morning on TV” — are more than just prestige projects for the networks; the relatively large and affluent audiences they attract make them magnets for corporate image advertisers that pay premium prices for airtime. Russert’s dominating position helped NBC earn a reported $60 million from “Meet the Press” in 2007.

Thus, “MTP’s” meltdown has sounded alarm bells inside NBC News and attracted the attention of its new president, Deborah Turness, who arrived from Britain’s ITV News in August. Gregory’s job does not appear to be in any immediate jeopardy, but there are plenty of signs of concern.

Last year, the network undertook an unusual assessment of the 43-year-old journalist, commissioning a psychological consultant to interview his friends and even his wife. The idea, according to a network spokeswoman, Meghan Pianta, was “to get perspective and insight from people who know him best.” But the research project struck some at NBC as odd, given that Gregory has been employed there for nearly 20 years.

Around the same time, the network appointed a new executive producer at “MTP,” Rob Yarin, a veteran media consultant. Yarin, who had worked with Gregory on an MSNBC show, “Race for the White House,” during the 2008 campaign, succeeded Betsy Fischer Martin, who reigned over “MTP” for 11 years. Fischer Martin had helped Russert soar to glory, but had disagreed with Gregory over matters of style and substance (she was promoted to oversee all of NBC’s political coverage).

Two points should be made about the above, even apart from personal tastes over the style of the shows. First, conducting a psychological screening of their host is just, well, insaneMaybe the exercise will help Gregory get in touch with his inner child, or something. However, the nature of television isn’t a therapy session, and viewers could care less about Gregory’s psyche when they tune in for interviews. If NBC execs have questions about Gregory’s mental structure in relation to his job, then maybe they should just look for another host. Gregory seems to have taken it in stride, but it’s difficult to understand why. If my employer was unhappy with my work, the last thing I’d expect is for them to start talking to my wife and my friends about it.

Second, the issue seems to have begun when Gregory took the job, not when Betty Fischer Martin began working on the show. She helped Russert dominate Sunday mornings, so why did NBC push her out last year for opposing Gregory’s “style and substance”? Even NBC questioned that to the point of doing psychological screening. Why get rid of a proven success to revamp the show to meet mediocrity?

One change already made is to use shorter and punchier interviews:

The overall effect is that the program now bears only a vague resemblance to the one over which Russert presided. Whereas Russert would spend multiple segments grilling a single newsmaker, Gregory now barely goes more than six or seven minutes on any interview or topic.

Scott Johnson scoffs:

Here’s a thought. It’s the audience that needs to be assessed. Why does it turn away from Gregory? Maybe they’ve done the research on that, but Farhi doesn’t have the goods.

According to Farhi, NBC thinks that the remedy might be segments in smaller doses. If the idea is smaller doses of Gregory, they might be getting warm. Less Gregory just might be the ticket.

Shorter, punchier, and less depth — sounds more like the weekday breakfast shows than the traditional Meet the Press model. That leads us to this unfortunate metaphor, from Gregory himself and noted by Scott:

Gregory says the new look “delivers on the core of what ‘Meet the Press’ is” but “widens the aperture . . .”

A question for Paul Farhi: Do you really want to quote Gregory on “widening the aperture” here? Are you sure that’s the metaphor you want to use in this context?

Even amateur photographers know that widening the aperture reduces the depth. It captures only the central image itself. The idea of the Sunday talk shows is to reach that depth by deep dives with its subjects, not quick hits filled with sound bites and segues, and especially on important topics rather than entertainment and fluff. If this is an experiment in television, it appears to have already failed. Everyone at NBC is flailing here, and not just Gregory.

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