The death of the Sunday shows
By: Dylan Byers
April 21, 2014 07:03 PM EDT
The Sunday morning shows once occupied a sacred space in American politics.
Today, many influential Washington players can’t even remember the last time they watched.
The public affairs shows — “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation” and “This Week” — used to set the agenda for the nation’s capital with their news-making interviews and immensely influential audience. Now the buzz around the shows is more likely to center on gossipy criticism about the hosts, notably “Meet the Press’s” David Gregory, whose fate has become an incessant subject of conversation, most recently in a Washington Post story on Monday. Meanwhile, fans complain about the recurrence of familiar guests — Sen. John McCain again? — who simply relay party talking points that often go unchallenged.
“For political junkies and those who just want to catch up, the Sunday shows still are relevant, but they’re not the signature events they once were,” Tom Brokaw, the NBC News veteran who briefly moderated “Meet the Press” in 2008, said in an interview. “I first appeared on ‘Meet the Press’ during Watergate, and it was a secular mass in Washington; the faithful never missed it.”
Political veterans, congressional aides, former administration officials and longtime journalists all attested to the Sunday shows’ decline. The programs are no longer the agenda-setting platforms of days past, they said. Instead, the broadcasts have become a venue for lawmakers to push familiar talking points and for talking heads to exchange conventional wisdom. Occasionally there is an interview or discussion that will make headlines — Vice President Joe Biden’s endorsement of gay marriage, which preceded President Barack Obama’s own announcement, comes to mind. But that has become the exception rather than the rule.
Not surprisingly, the few who adamantly insist that the programs are relevant are the hosts and producers.
“I do not agree that ‘Meet the Press’ is not what it has always been, which is a driver of the conversation,” said David Gregory, the current host, echoing remarks made by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and CBS’s Bob Schieffer. “Administration figures, politicians and candidates come to ‘Meet the Press’ because they know what ‘Meet the Press’ represents.”
Increasingly, what “Meet the Press” and its competitors represent are still-powerful brands struggling to maintain influence in a radically changed media environment, where news consumption is more fast-paced and fractured than ever and “the news cycle” these shows used to command no longer really exists.
Since the death of former “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert in 2008, there has been much hemming and hawing over the quality of the Sunday show hosts, none of whom have a reputation for tough interviews. Gregory has particularly suffered in the press; on Monday, The Washington Post Style section published what amounts to the latest installment in the host’s rolling public relations disaster under the headline, “What’s Wrong With David Gregory?”
Gregory doesn’t put much stock in the criticism, saying, “If I could figure out why certain perceptions existed, I wouldn’t have time to do my job.”
But complaints about the hosts overlook a dire reality, which is that the changed media environment has dealt a severe blow to the Sunday institution itself. In an era of 24-hour news delivered through digital snippets, the historic influence of the weekend morning shows may now be irrecoverable.
The Obama administration has turned an especially cold shoulder to the programs. Past administrations would dole out key newsmakers almost every week. The George W. Bush administration frequently sent the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others on the show in an effort to shape the national conversation.
“When I was at the White House and on the Hill, Sunday shows were either the exclamation point at the end of a week or the capital letter that began a new week. Today, they’re part of the endless dot, dot, dots that are part of political coverage,” said Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary. “There is so much news and so many outlets, even quality Sunday shows don’t break through like they use to.”
Journalists recognize the change as well.
“The news cycle moves so quickly and with so many diverse entry points for quality political news that it is difficult for the Sunday shows, as they once did, to ‘drive’ the week’s political news,” Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, wrote in an email. “A week is now eternity, after all.”
That reality has radically altered the way politicians use the Sunday programs. In the past, the platform was so influential that presidential administrations and lawmakers met nearly every week to strategically plan out appearances, hoping to impact the latest political or policy debate.
“There was a time when everything would stop on Friday afternoon and Cabinet members and senators would gather around a table and say, ‘Who are we putting out on Sunday?’” one former Democratic White House official said. “Now if you want to make news, you can tweet it, or you can call any number of outlets.”
The options for influencing the news today are numerous: A politician can go on cable news, give a newspaper interview, stop by talk radio, hold a press conference or simply send out a tweet. And he or she can do any of those things on a Tuesday night or a Friday afternoon. The news will invariably percolate up the media chain — from the Twitter-chattering press corps to the front pages of leading news sites — and become fodder for next Sunday’s roundtables.
Lacking for willing participants, the shows increasingly serve as a home for party spokesmen who seem to relish the national limelight. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) made a combined 38 appearances across the three shows in 2013.
Meanwhile, other lawmakers understand that while the Sunday shows are still a powerful platform, reaching a combined 9 million to 10 million viewers a week, they are no longer essential to their messaging strategy.
“A generation ago, people would go on Sunday shows because they thought it would set the tone for the week,” said Alex Conant, the press secretary for Sen. Marco Rubio, who has made two appearances so far in 2014. “When we go on Sunday shows, it’s more to talk to a big audience in a thoughtful way, rather than to generate Monday morning headlines.”
That the Obama administration has been less proactive on Sundays may be a unique feature of this White House — “this president hasn’t made great use of his Cabinet,” the former White House official said — but it is also a byproduct of the new media environment. Obama’s team has always put a premium on direct-to-voter messaging and, when it does do national media, often favors going outside the Beltway.
The White House declined to comment for this article, but Ben LaBolt, the national press secretary for Obama’s 2012 campaign, noted how the Obama campaigns had “prioritized making news in regional media outlets in targeted states and producing digital content that could reach voters directly.”
In an effort to adapt to the new reality, “Meet the Press” and “This Week” have been implementing changes that seem to upend the very essence of the genre. Both shows now spend less time on in-depth interviews and politics. Interviews with lawmakers are often crammed into a single segment so that more time can be given to current topics on the national radar, regardless of their relevance to Washington.
Stephanopoulos, the host of ABC’s “This Week,” described the change as “broadening the palette.”
“We’re bringing in different voices and broadening out our coverage to cover all kinds of things,” he said. “We still have newsmaking guests every week, but we also work hard every week to do different things.”
Gregory spoke of “adding on layers” in the form of “big conversations about religion, foreign events and societal trends.”
“The core of the show has always been your Washington fix, we’re a Washington-based program. But I do think we’re adding on layers, changing the experience, making it more interesting,” he said, adding that the American people “want more than just Republicans and Democrats.”
Only CBS’s “Face the Nation” continues to adhere to the traditional format. “We don’t have any bells and whistles, we don’t do anything fancy. We just try to get the key newsmaker who is going to have the most influence, sit ’em at the table, turn on the lights and ask the questions,” Schieffer, who has anchored the program for 23 years, said. “We haven’t changed it around very much.”
Though producers at NBC and ABC believe the changes will broaden the shows’ appeal, some media experts say the decision to cover more topics in shorter time segments could actually hasten their decline in influence.
‘One thing we learned from studying prime-time cable news over the years is that part of their success in driving the news agenda can be attributed to their narrow but louder news agenda, which tended to focus on a few big and often divisive political stories and then to amplify them by hammering away at that subject night after night,” Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of the Pew Research Center Journalism Project, explained. “To the extent that shows like MTP are now broadening out their news agenda and hitting more themes in shorter segments, that may diminish their agenda-setting impact on the rest of the news media and news cycle.”
The Sunday shows still command a respectable audience — indeed, combined viewership has increased since 2008. And in the digital age, their reach extends far beyond ratings: Clips from the show get replayed across cable and broadcast news. Several online outlets, POLITICO included, devoutly transcribe the highlights from each show every Sunday morning. While they may no longer set the agenda, they are still seen as important venues for high-minded political conversation.
“There’s no question that the Sunday shows no longer have a monopoly on newsmaker interviews or play the same role they once did. But there’s still something different about them compared to the cacophony around them,” Peter Baker, the New York Times White House correspondent, said. “Their tradition and enduring quality stand out. Washington, at least, takes them so seriously that when you go on a Sunday show, you often hear from people in the White House or Congress trying to influence what you might say. That doesn’t happen when you go on a cable show.”
Abramson noted that she still watches the shows or scans the transcripts “because they often do either make news or include guests with genuinely interesting observations on politics.”
But awareness has never been the chief metric by which the Sunday programs are judged. More than ratings, Gregory, Stephanopoulos and Schieffer are hoping to land the newsmaking interviews that drive the political conversation and bolster their own reputations as commanding newsmen.
The hosts’ inability to move their guests past the rehearsed talking points does not help them in this effort.
“I think the biggest change over the years is that many politicians now come to the show with talking points rather than real answers. They come to avoid making news rather than making news,” said Dan Balz, the veteran Washington Post political correspondent.
None of the current hosts have matched Russert’s reputation for challenging interviews. On a Sunday earlier this month, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted, “When I want a 100% predictable interview with a party chair that is cured of everything except political spin I go with [David Gregory]. You?”
Perhaps Russert left a void no one could fill. In “This Town,” the 2013 chronicle of Washington insider-ism, Mark Leibovich described the late host as “a superb journalist … in the sense that he was a guy on TV whom everyone knew, who asked the ‘tough but fairs’ or important newsmakers and did so in a way that was distinctive and combative and made for good TV.”
That Gregory has been unable to fill Russert’s shoes is the story of his tenure as host, an oft-repeated talking point used to explain why “Meet the Press,” which spent 15 years as the undisputed king of Sunday morning public affairs programs, is now often third in the ratings and continuing to decline.
What’s rarely mentioned is that neither Stephanopoulos nor Schieffer has been able to replace Russert, either. Leibovich writes that “if you were a politician of serious ambition, an invitation to [Russert’s] set was your rite of passage and your proving ground. ‘It was like you were being knighted,’ [Former Washington Post editor Ben] Bradlee said of getting on the show. ‘All of a sudden you went up a couple of ranks in their class.’”
No one feels that way about today’s hosts. Whether that is their fault or a consequence of the current media environment, or some combination of the two, is an open question.
“Tim reinvented the form and took it to another ‘must see’ level, but at the end he was quietly complaining about the blogging commentary and the more robust competition,” Brokaw said. “When I filled in after his untimely death, I could see the change coming fast.”
“It remains a very important four hours of television, but I long for more imagination, new voices and more outside looking in,” he added. “New voices and bold choices.”