The September of Stelteritis

Chuck Todd
"Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd. Photo: Larry French/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
September 2, 2022

Last week, as part of its quixotic, nearly decade-long effort to modernize Meet the Press and satisfy Chuck Todd’s enduring and perhaps obstinate vision for a 24/7, multi-platform media mini-empire built on the back of a 75-year-old Sunday show, NBC News announced that it had hired a new executive producer: David P. Gelles, late of the late CNN+. The move comes just over a year after NBC hired the much-beloved Carrie Budoff Brown, then Politico’s top editor, to expand the MTP franchise, and three months after the network announced that it would once again rebrand the MTP website, once again overhaul the MTP newsletter, and once again launch a new MTP blog—a flurry of moves betraying a wistful belief that, with enough product launches and relaunches, one can effectively will an analog brand into digital relevance.

After all, let’s be honest: NBC News is already a chaotic brand architecture, a tug-of-war zone encompassing liberal valhalla MSNBC, the more staid nightly news program, a general interest news website that seems mired in another generation, and much much more. Meet the Press is a historic Sunday show that didn’t really ever have the brand permission to veer out on its own. I’m not trying to be obnoxious here; Todd is a respected and well-liked guy, but it’s just not clear what Meet the Press looks like beyond a staged and choreographed interview show with Beltway influencers. In fact, on a macro level, media is following the long arc toward authenticity, and MTP belongs to a generation when television news was theatrical and grand. Alas, you can’t turn back time.

Indeed, Todd is a talented news broadcaster and analyst, but he’s not a visionary executive, and one gets the sense that these launches and relaunches are motivated by ego and determination more than any sort of business case. Nevertheless, NBC News leadership has relented to his whims and demands, expanding this franchise against its better judgment, a mistake common in the ego-saturated media industry. You have to give Todd credit for wanting to work more in a shrinking space, but the temptation seems misaligned with market forces. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Notably, the Gelles hire, which NBC apparently hoped would convey its ongoing commitment to Todd—“he’ll be a terrific next partner for Chuck,” Budoff Brown said—instead had the unintended consequence of inciting critical speculation about his future. The Daily Beast said the shakeup put Todd “in jeopardy,” and noted that, in light of “ratings woes” and critical reviews, his colleague Kristen Welker was already being groomed to replace him. I’m told quite reliably that reports of Todd’s demise are, at the very least, premature, and, for what it’s worth, Todd just signed a multi-year contract extension. On the other hand, my sources at 30 Rock say no one in the leadership ranks is naive about Todd’s challenges, and that he is therefore perpetually vulnerable. But as concerns the future of both NBC News and MTP, all this drama is sort of beside the point.

Halfway through the Beast article, an anonymous “Meet the Press source” posits that the solution to the storied Sunday show’s problems is to oust the host: “At what point does anyone have the balls to say, ‘Maybe the problem is the face of it?’” My ever-insightful Puck partner Peter Hamby, however, posited the far more salient question on Twitter: “Why do TV news people think that changing hosts will fix the unfixable structural problem of linear decline?” 

This is what’s notable about all the talent turnover in television news across the last year or so. In the old days, the business was programming, and personnel decisions defined an executive’s career in an era when everyone made so much money, so consistently, that innovation was a four-letter word. In 2008, when Rachel Maddow replaced Keith Olbermann as the face of MSNBC, she effectively redefined the network’s brand and drove up ratings across primetime, while turning herself into a liberal icon in the process. 

But as linear audiences drift away, host-swapping isn’t the ratings analeptic it used to be, when late-night bake-offs and morning show shake-ups were major media events, themselves. Alex Wagner’s ascension into Maddow’s shadow shows no signs of bolstering the network’s prospects, and seemingly no one inside 30 Rock expects it to. On the day Wagner’s promotion was announced, MSNBC President Rashida Jones told Vanity Fair: “We’re not looking for someone to come in and mimic Rachel’s performance or success.” In Wagner’s first week, ratings at 9 p.m. dropped by 15 percent overall, to 1.73 million, and by 23 percent in the 25-to-54 year-old demo, to 164,000 (the equivalent, coincidentally, to the population of Eugene, Oregon, where I happen to be writing this piece). Somewhere, one of Cesar Conde’s finance guys is figuring out a better solution than spending tens of millions of dollars to reach more than a couple hundred thousand people who are actively paying attention with the volume on.

By the same token, CNN’s fate doesn’t really hang on who Chris Licht elects to host his new morning show, or who replaces Chris Cuomo in primetime. As has become readily apparent, Licht is really playing his own game of business Jenga—figuring out which expensive piece of the puzzle he can remove without allowing the entire edifice to fall upon itself and crash into smithereens. Smart, non-polarizing programming anchored by charismatic hosts (hard to find, of course, and never cheap) would surely earn Licht some much-needed positive press, win plaudits from friends in Manhattan and Brentwood, and reverse the narrative about his tenure. 

But, barring the arrival of an as-yet-unidentified, once-in-a-generation star who happens to still think linear is where it’s at, nothing can change the fact that the entire foundation for these networks’ core offering is collapsing, and that they’re losing their claim on the culture, and even on politics, in the process. Broadcast news executives are well aware of this. In the old days, all the power lay in the hands of guys like Don Hewitt and Andy Lack and David Rhodes, programming savants from the Roone Arledge school. Now the juice has been transferred to the MBAs, like Conde, who have other tools for fixing business challenges than re-arranging the chairs. Licht may represent a bit of the past and future. He’s undeniably a programming guy, but he’s operating from the playbook of David Zaslav, the ultimate clear-eyed, zero-sacred-cows Wall Street executive.

The top top top executives who run the networks’ parent companies are keenly aware of linear decline, of course, as evidenced most recently by Brian Roberts and Jeff Shell’s reconsiderations of the NBC television business. Last week, the Journal’s Joe Flint reported that NBC was considering cutting back primetime programming and returning the 10 p.m. hour to the affiliates. This week, Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reports that NBC is seeking to cut $1 billion from budgets at its TV networks. The writing is on the wall, in bright neon and 72-point font.

Television’s most recent high-profile talent shakeup was, of course, the ouster of Brian Stelter at CNN—nominally because, as Licht told Stelter in their exit meeting, CNN didn’t want, or need, an hour-long show about the media. As I reported earlier this week, Stelter’s defenestration actually had far more to do with Warner Bros. Discovery’s ambitions to steer the network back to the political center (and to broadcast its commitment to that effort very publicly). Nevertheless, one can understand why a cable news network wouldn’t want an hour-long show about itself right now: it’s not a particularly positive story.