Tim Russert's death leaves crucial voids

NBC must find 'Meet the Press' host, bureau leader

NBC News' Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory are two candidates who might be picked to fill the seat at "Meet the Press" following Friday's sudden death of moderator and Washington bureau chief Tim Russert.

Mitchell is a veteran NBC News correspondent who has been covering the presidential campaign and who is known as a tough interviewer. Gregory is chief White House correspondent, a substitute host on "Today" and since this year has had his own nightly show on MSNBC titled "Race for the White House."

Both possess some of Russert's critical skill sets. NBC News is considered to have a deep political bench, and other candidates could still surface.

Nonetheless, Russert's passing has left a void at a crucial time for NBC News.

Russert not only took "Press" to the top ratings spot more than seven years ago, he also was the face of the network's political coverage, setting the direction and the tone as bureau chief.

Top-level network jobs often take years to grow into and involve a tricky transition period. (It took about 18 months for Brian Williams to take over the anchor spot left by Tom Brokaw.) In this case, NBC doesn't have the luxury of time, with the biggest political story of recent years -- the presidential election -- playing out right now.

Mitchell has the experience and contacts to smooth the transition at "Press." She has been a mainstay at NBC News for decades and already anchors an MSNBC hour daily.

Gregory is a rising star known for sparring with White House press secretaries; he could continue Russert's tradition of tough questioning on the Sunday public-affairs program. (He also has been seen within NBC as an eventual replacement for Chris Matthews on "Hardball.")

"Everybody is going to want that seat on 'Meet the Press,' and they're going to have a hard time at NBC trying to decide who possibly can take that place," ABC's Barbara Walters said Friday on CNN's "Larry King Live." "Not only that, they have to have somebody to head the Washington bureau. This was not just a job and name only. Tim did the hiring. He did the firing."

Finding a successor to lead the bureau could be even more challenging for the Peacock than filling the "Press" spot. One in-house executive widely thought to have the chops is Chuck Todd, who was handpicked by Russert to be NBC's political director. Todd apparently is well-liked at 30 Rock as well.

Russert's death also will rattle the normally staid world of the Sunday public-affairs shows. Under Russert, "Press" began to beat ABC's "This Week" in 1998 and leapfrogged it for good in July 2000.

In its most recent week of regular ratings -- last week's was impacted by coverage of the French Open -- "Press" was solidly in the lead, averaging 4.1 million viewers, well ahead of second-place "This Week" (2.6 million), CBS' "Face the Nation" (2.5 million) and "Fox News Sunday" (1.4 million), Nielsen Media Research said.

Also uncertain is the status of the interview program "The Tim Russert Show." Russert spent one of his final hours taping the weekend show, but MSNBC instead chose to air a primetime tribute. It isn't known whether the final show will air.

"This is going to be a tough one for NBC," one TV journalist said. "There are a lot of good reporters, a lot of good interviewers around, but Tim had become something of an institution. He will not be easily replaced."