When Chuck Todd inherited Meet the Press, historically one of the most august posts in American journalism, he immediately stressed the importance of expanding the storied Sunday show’s cultural footprint to focus on its future as a robust, 24/7 digital franchise with up-to-the-minute political news and “Beltway buzz.” This was hardly a novel concept at the time. By 2014, both Twitter and Politico had been around for nearly a decade and dramatically turbocharged the pace of the news cycle. Simultaneously, the legacy media industry was investing tens of millions in always-on content purveyors like Buzzfeed, Vice, and Vox with the presumption that the secret sauce to millennial engagement required omni-channel shorter-burst, “snackable” content.
Todd, then in his early 40s, wanted to have it both ways: helm a storied show while flashing some digital age juice. He had the curriculum vitae, sartorial standards, political geekiness and institutional loyalty that seemed to epitomize the uniquely staid traditions of Washington. But in the overly cautious and uninventive world of television news, he qualified as a digital evangelist. Under his leadership, Meet the Press, a Sunday fixture, would need to run seven days a week, he declared, and meet audiences where they were: on their phone, in their inbox, everywhere.
Todd’s ambition, while admirable, also seemed to betray an insecurity about his place in the shape-shifting media landscape. If the future was mobile, social, instant, why was he choosing to hitch his wagon to the fading, if still influential, light of linear television? The Sunday show, of course, would be his primary preoccupation and most notable platform, as well as the most significant source of revenue for the MTP brand. And yet his reverence for the show’s legacy—and, of course, his late predecessor and mentor Tim Russert—seemed to override his own conviction about the seismic technological changes that were undercutting the reach and influence of broadcast news. The proselytizing about a digital, multiplatform future—which was actually a digital, multiplatform present—was thus doubly perplexing because, in addition to preaching to a long-ago converted choir, he didn’t really seem like a full-fledged member of the congregation.
Whatever the case, Todd set out on his mission with fervor, and with the blessing and financial backing of NBCUniversal. His output was prolific. He took on five additional hours of air time with Meet the Press Daily, on MSNBC; overhauled the show’s morning newsletter; launched both a daily and a weekly podcast, a weekly streaming show, a political blog, and even a documentary film festival. This vast array of MTP-branded offerings gave Todd a reasonable claim to being the hardest-working person in journalism, with perhaps the exception of Kara Swisher, but it didn’t meaningfully expand the brand’s influence or give Todd a more powerful position in the political media ecosystem.
Eight years later, Meet the Press still holds an enviable position in the Sunday show field—it is, notably, number-one in the coveted 25-to-54 year-old demographic. But the daily MSNBC show, the newsletter, the podcasts and the blog have hardly turned the Meet the Press franchise into an essential part of the daily political media diet, a la The New York Times, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, or the litany of newsletters from Politico, Axios and Punchbowl. In many ways, it seems like Meet the Press—which still relies on a series of pre-recorded, highly-managed interviews with major political figures, plus a journalistic roundtable—exists because of its history more than its future.
Todd appears to be trying to change that calculus, once again. Last June, NBC hired top Politico editor Carrie Budoff Brown, a beloved and deeply respected Washington journalist, to oversee the Meet the Press franchise, with a mandate to, in the words of NBC News president Noah Oppenheim, “expand the iconic brand’s reach and impact even further.” That effort culminated in an announcement this week, first reported by Axios’ Sara Fischer, that Meet the Press would be rebranding its website (again), overhauling its newsletter (again) and adding a new blog (again). Meanwhile, as NBC recently announced, the poorly-rated Meet the Press Daily will move off of MSNBC and onto the NBC News Now streaming service. Budoff Brown framed the reboot as a modern expansion that amplifies the streaming opportunity. “Really where we are putting a lot of our time, attention and investment is on these other platforms,” Budoff Brown told Fischer. “This is where we see our growth.”
“Weightlessness on Weightlessness”
Every enterprise should be afforded the opportunity to adapt, especially in the rapidly changing world of media. As one NBC News executive put it to me, “Wouldn’t you rather be driving a brand that is actively pursuing and capturing new and diversified audiences—no matter how nascent—than one that is standing in place?” Nevertheless, NBC’s decision to remove Todd’s show from MSNBC while doubling down on an almost-decade-long digital strategy that has yet to achieve meaningful success has led to a lot of head-scratching in the news industry, on both the linear and digital sides.
Todd makes millions of dollars a year. The Sunday show is barely profitable. And the ancillary endeavors are not popular; for instance, you won’t find The Chuck ToddCast on Apple’s list of the top 200 news podcasts, and the MTP First Read newsletter doesn’t “drive the conversation” in Washington, or anywhere. Meanwhile, roughly 50 NBC News employees are responsible for sustaining the sprawling MTP franchise. Divorced from the vast resources of Comcast-NBCUniversal, this would not be a sustainable business, and it’s not clear to many industry executives how overhauling a newsletter or adding yet another podcast will reverse the franchise’s fortunes.
The question that is increasingly being asked among these executives is whether this new announcement signals a renewed investment in Todd’s future at Meet the Press, or if it insidiously sets him up for a real pivot—a final chance to prove out his omni-channel thesis before potentially shrinking the franchise’s footprint. The hiring of Budoff Brown suggests that there is at least enough faith left at NBC to give Todd’s effort one more go, but the entire endeavor is still predicated on the hypothesis that there is a population of underserved Chuck Todd or Meet the Press superfans out there eagerly awaiting more content—and that isn’t really borne out by the evidence. What’s more likely is that Todd’s daily MSNBC show wasn’t a success and NBC needed to bolster its relatively lackluster streaming service anyway, and thus decided to mitigate the blow to Todd’s ego by assuring him, with even more resources, that they believe in him and in the franchise. One television news executive called it “a talent management tax.”
Then again, the tax may be comparatively minimal. “In truth, the daily MSNBC extension was irrelevant and didn’t move any needle,” another veteran news executive told me. “Moving an irrelevant MSNBC extension to a pure digital play is like testing the effects of weightlessness on weightlessness.” Implicit in this notion is the point that NBC has far larger, almost Talmudic strategic challenges to figure out first—its streaming news strategy, the identity of MSNBC after Maddow, what to do with other iconic franchises like Today, and so forth. And the revamp of MTP does seem a little bit like both a punt and a recognition that Todd has been a great company man during the network’s ongoing digital transformation.
If It’s Sunday…
Notably, even many naysayers are rooting for Todd and Budoff Brown, who are respected and truly well-liked figures in D.C. media. Todd, in particular, still manifests much of the Russertian love-of-the-game exuberance that he exhibited earlier in his career, both while working for the broadcasting legend and also while helming the 9 a.m. hour on MSNBC with Savannah Guthrie, a post-Morning Joe gig that transformed both of their careers. Unlike other journalists who lost their humility while ascending TV’s greasy pole, Todd is still a political omnivore who remembers where he started.
What’s interesting, however, is how much the media business has changed since he took over in Russert’s old chair. In 2014, mediacos all followed the thesis that they needed to be everywhere, all the time, catering to younger audiences. Even if ratings stunk, the thinking went, the new ball game was all about clipping videos for YouTube or Twitter or wherever. It was a mantra of scale and social, largely delivered by a cohort of media false prophets.
Now, of course, the pendulum has swung back in the other direction of owned and operated, of knowing the end user, keeping the distribution on a company’s own platform, and managing costs. Throughout the industry, we’re experiencing a recoiling of the Netflixified, Buzzfeedesque strategy of over-producing and milking brand value. Todd and Budoff Brown may indeed find a new generation of MTP superfans who want to consume the brand all the time. But they may also find that the franchise works best as a show on Sunday mornings, right where it started. After all, there may be a reason why CNN, CBS, and ABC didn’t pursue the same path for their Sunday shows.