David Gregory fills 'Meet the Press' role

NBC News correspondent succeeds Tim Russert

NEW YORK -- David Gregory inherits the longest-running program on television as well as a position of power at "Meet the Press."

It's something the late Tim Russert, who was moderator from 1991 until his death in June, knew well: "Meet the Press" is the place for politicians to make their name, try to rebuild their reputations or undergo a trial by fire. It's where a dedicated audience hears from newsmakers every week. It was also, and still remains, the highest-rated Sunday public affairs program. It's what Russert built to be the top Sunday morning show for the past decade.

It's a legacy that Gregory respects and wants to continue.

"The mission is very much the same, holding our leaders accountable and being a treasured platform to do that," he said Sunday afternoon, hours after NBC News had signed him to a multiyear contract to moderate "Meet the Press." "I'm humbled to be in the role that I'm going to."

And it comes at an important time for the country, Gregory said. He said viewers shouldn't expect a lot of changes right away, but he said he wants "Meet the Press" to continue to be a platform to help people understand the news from Washington, D.C. He'll have help with the experience of longtime executive producer Betsy Fischer, who NBC News also re-upped to remain with the program.

"The mission for 61 years is really to hold people accountable to elicit information ... but to do so in a tough but fair manner," Fischer said. She noted that Russert took over 17 years ago Monday as moderator of "Meet the Press."

NBC News president Steve Capus said that he told Gregory and Fischer that they shouldn't feel obligated to continue doing things in the same way, but there is no mandate for change, either.

"It doesn't need that," Capus said. "It's already the premiere Sunday morning news program."

Gregory, thanks to a major assist from interim Tom Brokaw on air and Fischer behind the scenes, will have a strong position when he begins full-time. Brokaw handed over the program to Gregory at the end of the show Sunday.

"He's staked to a 1 million viewer lead," one TV newser points out. And the fact that Brokaw signed off at "Meet the Press" after what will likely be a big audience for his interview with President-elect Barack Obama isn't going to hurt, either.

But while Gregory drew praise from his new colleagues and rivals at the other Sunday public-affairs shows -- CBS' Bob Schieffer, ABC's George Stephanopoulos and Fox's Chris Wallace (a former "Meet the Press" moderator himself) -- they're also going to try to make sure that Gregory doesn't get an easy time in the ratings. ABC, for instance, will have the first news interview with former GOP presidential candidiate John McCain as well as vice president Joe Biden.

"I think he'll be a formidable competitor. I wish him the very best," Schieffer said. "I'm also going to try to beat his brains out (in the ratings) because that's what we do here. And I'm sure that he feels exactly the same way."

"He's a great broadcaster, and I think he'll put on a great show," said Stephanopoulos, who knows Gregory well.

"David's son is in my daughter's (kindergarten) class," Stephanopoulos said. "He's a good guy." On Sunday morning, Stephanopoulos and his wife sent over a dozen bagels to Gregory's house as a kind of a welcoming gift.

Wallace also praised Gregory but said that the days of "Meet the Press" dominance could be at an end.

"I think he would be the first to admit that he's not Tim Russert or Tom Brokaw, and in a sense, this is really the start of the post-Russert era on Sunday talk shows," Wallace said. "Some of the traditional 'Meet the Press' audience will shop around." They didn't in recent months, Wallace said, because of the strength of Brokaw stepping in for Russert.

The election and transition lifted the ratings of all the Sunday shows, though "Meet the Press" remained the leader. ABC's "This Week," for instance, put in its best November sweep rating in eight years.

"Meet the Press" averaged 4.5 million viewers in November, compared with 3.5 million for "This Week," 3.1 million for CBS' "Face the Nation" and 1.5 million for "Fox News Sunday." That was the best viewership for the November sweep since 2004; in fact, all the Sunday shows were up double digits in viewership year over year. Among adults 25-54, "Meet the Press" had a 1.3 rating, compared with ABC's 1.0, CBS' 0.9 and Fox's 0.5, Nielsen Media Research said. NBC, ABC and CBS also have seen double-digit increases in the adults 25-54 demographic, compared with November 2007. Fox was up, but only slightly.

To Schieffer's mind, the talk shows haven't changed much since "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation" -- the two longest running shows on TV -- signed on.

"The success of these programs are who the guests are," Schieffer said. "The programs that do best each week are the ones who get the key guests." There's very little in the way of bells and whistles as there is elsewhere in TV news.

"These programs are about answers. They're not about showing off or telling off people or ambushing them," Schieffer said. "They're about getting the news, and (the host) finding out the information that people need to know."