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News Show Throne Is Up for Grabs


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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 20, 2009

David Gregory says he was acutely aware of "the legacy of the program" when he took over "Meet the Press" four months ago.

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"I realized I was succeeding Tim Russert, and that was a big deal," he says. "I'm trying to bring as much passion as I can, and I hope viewers are seeing it. My voice is still evolving in this. . . . Just like Tim did, I've got to go out there and earn it."

But the NBC newsman, who is drawing lukewarm reviews, has a fight on his hands. George Stephanopoulos seems reenergized at "This Week," and he and Bob Schieffer at "Face the Nation" have been closing the gap with the longtime ratings leader.

"Obviously, Tim's tragic death has opened up the playing field for everybody," says Chris Wallace, host of "Fox News Sunday." "He was the king of Sunday morning. The throne is empty."

Stephanopoulos, who brings an insider's knowledge from his days at the Clinton White House, has loosened up considerably as a moderator. "You do get more comfortable in your role and more confident in your presentation," he says.

Schieffer, for his part, isn't touting any new bells and whistles. "We're doing exactly what we've always done," he says. "We have not changed a thing. We're still basing our show on news." But he says it is "very, very difficult" to compete against his hour-long rivals when he has only 30 minutes, which is largely devoted to newsmaker interviews rather than discussions among journalists.

The Nielsen figures reflect the more competitive landscape. In the first three months of the year, "Meet the Press" drew 4.16 million viewers, a decline of 6 percent from the same period last year. ABC's "This Week" attracted 3.36 million (up 12 percent); CBS's "Face the Nation" 3.19 million (up 8 percent); and "Fox News Sunday" 1.48 million (basically flat). On April 5, "This Week" came within 200,000 viewers of "Meet," and "Face" was within 290,000 viewers.

No one, including Gregory himself, expected the former White House correspondent and cable host to be another Russert -- a garrulous, working-class storyteller and prosecutorial interviewer. Gregory is a sharp, diligent and well-prepared host who asks follow-up questions. But he is not what you would call an outsize personality, and his sharp wit has remained mostly hidden.

Gregory displayed "little energy and virtually no passion" on a recent program, writes Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik. "And that is the opposite of what made Russert so compelling to watch." The new moderator is polished, writes Newsday critic Verne Gay, but "seems more intent on covering the waterfront than digging for news, or in pushing the talking heads off their talking points."

Gregory says he is "letting loose," not holding back, and his executive producer, Betsy Fischer, says he is pinning down guests. When the new General Motors chief executive, Fritz Henderson, said his pay had been cut 30 percent, Gregory asked him how much he will be making. The answer: $1.3 million.

"We're dealing with a major recession," Fischer says. "Excitement is not necessarily something that is called for. David is very passionate about preparation for the show."

But where Russert created tension by trying to catch his guests in inconsistencies, Gregory often poses low-key, open-ended questions. In a recent interview, he asked John McCain, "What is your take on the anger, the populist anger in the country? Do you think it's justified, or do you think it's been overblown? . . . And yet the White House says the Republicans have become the party of no. Is that fair?"

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