Can the Sunday morning talk show be saved?
For decades, the Sunday morning Big Four — NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CBS’ “Face the Nation,” ABC’s “This Week” and “Fox News Sunday” — have been an integral part of the ecosystem of information from Beltway. High-profile political figures, hungry for the big soapbox and the credibility of the establishment, the broadcasts carried, demanded reservations and sometimes made the news.
The conventional wisdom was that no pol could launch a viable presidential campaign without first going through “the Russert primary,” a long grilling of the late Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” In their day, Bob Schieffer and David Brinkley held equally powerful positions as moderators on what insiders liked to call “Face” and “Week,” respectively.
Washington’s most newsworthy personalities have already earned bragging rights by earning what has become known as “Full Ginsburg” – an honorary title named in honor of William Ginsburg, the attorney for Monica Lewinsky during the scandal that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, who set a new standard for media exposure by appearing on five major Sunday news shows on the same day.
But while the four highest-rated shows still reach relatively large audiences — a combined average of around 9.3 million per week over the past year — there aren’t nearly as many clamors. Program producers acknowledge that they often struggle to book people who were once regulars in the Green Room on Sundays.
The changing fortunes of the programs tell the story of the changing media landscape, as well as politics.
Political leaders now have multiple opportunities to get their message across — live cable hits, podcasts, talk radio, social media — and they don’t have to wait until Sunday.
“Trump established the reality that he could speak to a very large audience very quickly using only his thumbs” on Twitter, says Mark Lukasiewicz, a former ABC and NBC News executive who is now dean of the Hofstra University School of Communication. “Sunday shows are no longer the guardians of political conversations on television. They were born at a time when politicians needed television to reach their audience. This is much less true today.
How breaking news got panelized: On cable, reporters and pundits are increasingly sharing the space
There are friendlier forums for a politician to deliver a message, with friendly moderators and like-minded viewers, he said. This leaves little incentive for a journalist to deal with probing questions from difficult and seasoned interviewers.
And the message doesn’t travel as far as it used to. Although Big Four programs grew in viewership during the first two years of the Trump administration, the trend has been declining since then. The four shows collectively lost about 16% of their viewers in 2021-22 compared to four years earlier, according to Nielsen figures.
The number of young viewers – the age group of 25-54 very popular with advertisers – has fallen by a third, weakening the financial viability of the programmes.
The smaller audience creates a sort of self-sustaining downward cycle, said another former television executive: High-profile political figures have less incentive to show up, which creates fewer compelling interviews and therefore less incentive to watch. (When Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia pulled off a Full Ginsburg this summer, it barely made a ripple in Washington.)
“Before, if you were Senator X or Y and you had big news on Wednesday, you were silent until Sunday,” said this individual, who asked not to be identified to preserve relations with former colleagues. . “Who’s doing this now?”
Hence the need for a little reinvention.
“I think our show has become less stuffy,” said Dax Tejera, executive producer of the ABC program. The whole point of having Raddatz and Karl, who share rotating hosting duties with George Stephanopoulos, do more segments from outside the studio “is to make the show more accessible. We don’t have to hold to the old standards of what a Sunday show is supposed to look like.We want to provide a broader opening on the news.
“Fox News Sunday” and “Meet the Press,” which each lost about a quarter of their viewership over the past four years, also tinkered.
“Fox News Sunday,” which airs live on Fox broadcast affiliates before being repeated on the Fox cable channel, lost its longtime moderator Chris Wallace to CNN in December. Last month, Fox tapped its chief legal correspondent Shannon Bream — a former late-night news anchor from a generation younger than Wallace — to take over. She made her debut in her new role last week with a guest list including the Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Tim Scott (RS.C.), Jane Hartley, the US ambassador to Britain, and former Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte – and notes the network has presented as a promising increase in the year to date.
“Meet the Press” has been virtually synonymous with NBC News since its debut in 1947, the longest-running continuously broadcast program on network television. Hosted since 2014 by Chuck Todd, it has created a variety of brand extensions in recent years, including single-topic specials (“Meet the Press Reports”), a podcast, blog and newsletter. There’s even a Meet the Press film festival.
But efforts to expand its Sunday franchise have recently taken a few sidetracks. After launching a weekday version of the program on MSNBC in 2015 with Todd, NBC News last year downgraded “Meet the Press Daily” from the late afternoon to a less-watched midday timeslot — then in June moved it to the NBC News Now streaming service.
Carrie Budoff Brown, hired last year by Politico to become senior vice president of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said the move was meant to expand the franchise to younger audiences and guard against the continued decline of traditional “linear” television. . “Audiences are in many places, not just watching TV on Sunday mornings,” she said. “There’s a lot of competition, but I’d rather be where we belong, with a familiar and trusted brand, than where our competitors are.”
But streaming news has yet to win over audiences in any big way, suggesting that “Meet the Press Daily” now has a much smaller audience and lower profile than on MSNBC. (NBC News does not detail viewership figures for its streaming platform.) The change sparked new speculative headlines that Todd’s tenure is in jeopardy; NBC has publicly expressed its support for him.
Sunday morning shows have also been jostled by the pandemic, which for months limited the traditional mix of VIPs in news studios.
“Face the Nation,” which has aired on CBS since 1954 and is currently hosted by Margaret Brennan, has suspended its weekly panel discussions with reporters and Washington pundits. Executive producer Mary Hager said this format could return as news dictates.
But in the meantime, the new facility to connect remotely with guests has widened the pool of interview subjects – allowing the show to go beyond Washington and tackle a range of topics beyond politics, like climate change.
“We’re doing less political analysis, but we’re still looking at what policies went into politics and what policies came out of it,” Hager said.
Despite the various headwinds, Hager believes Sunday shows are an enduring and necessary part of television. “There will always be an audience to make sense of the noise,” with experienced anchors leading the way, she said.
Lukasiewicz isn’t so sure. “I don’t want to suggest less [news and political] dialogue on television is a good thing, so I hope they have a reason to live,” he said. “But the jury is out.”
Elahe Izadi contributed to this story.