Chuck Todd tries to reboot the 67-year-old news show for 2014 with goatees, tattoos, and a glimmer of hope.
Chuck Todd interviewing President Barack Obama last Sunday. Photo via NBC.
The latest incarnation of NBC’s Meet the Press debuted to strong ratings last weekend, placing the veteran news talk show ahead of its Sunday morning competitors for the first time in six months. Boyish new moderator Chuck Todd and his goatee (which was brought up multiple times throughout the course of the show) ushered in what the network hopes to be a youth-friendly reboot for the program. President Obama as a first interview surely didn’t hurt Todd’s numbers, and a fresh batch press panelists, including heavily tattooed, straight-talking Buzzfeed reporter John Stanton, The Washington Post's Nia-Malika Henderson, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, helps give the show a refreshing kick. But if MTP plans on striking a lasting chord with its fickle and frustrated target demo, the house that Tim Russert built still has some work ahead of it.
Todd is known as a wonk among wonks in D.C. and was handpicked by legendary Meet the Press host Russert in 2007 to serve as NBC’s political director (a position he still holds). Despite his middle-class background and “normal dude” reputation, Todd’s professional career kicked off in the national political realm before he transitioned into journalism. His first media gig was at National Journal’s daily guide to insider politics, The Hotline, which Todd edited for six years before joining NBC.
Since joining NBC, Todd has appeared on numerous news shows, from The Rachel Maddow Show, Morning Joe, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, and Hardball with Chris Matthews, to Meet the Press itself, where he served as contributing editor. Prior to assuming the big chair at MTP, Todd anchored MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown. His frequent media appearances and frank, even-handed political analysis soon attracted a following of so-called “Chuckolytes.”
So it’s really no surprise that NBC chose Todd to replace David Gregory, who frustrated audiences with a tendency to pull punches when interviewing. Gone were the days of Russert’s tenacious questioning, and with them went the majority of viewers.
Now NBC needs to regain its clout, and Todd seems to be uniquely suited for the job. He’s got relative youth (Todd is 42), a relatable demeanor, and unimpeachable Washington cred. But in his premiere show, Todd’s Meet the Press seemed to still be grasping for the right path, instead of presenting a fully formed vision. “We’re living in a house as we remodel it, so the program and this studio will continue to evolve over the coming months,” Todd acknowledged during his opening remarks.
He’s also stated his goal for the show as reducing “Americans’ cynicism toward politics and politicians,” which is a risky thing to say in the age of the Washington outsider. Even this guiding light is more diffuse on Meet the Press than it should be, though. Take, for example, the brand-new “Who Needs Washington?” segment, during which Todd interviewed the mayors of big cities about how they are getting things done “with little of Washington’s help or dysfunction.” The tired concept introduces little that’s groundbreaking, and instead plays right into Washington’s self-hating theatre. And while it perhaps celebrates big city politicians (not that they need the backslapping, they’re plenty lauded in their own regions), the tone of the segment seems to promote more, not less, cynicism about Washington. Meet the Press’ other new idea, “What Everyone in Washington Knows but is Afraid to Say,” was even more disappointing. Aside from the cognitive whiplash caused by one segment indulging in anti-Beltway rhetoric and the other positioning the program as the ultimate D.C. insider, the big reveal left a lot to be desired. Guess what the D.C. cognoscenti were whispering about last weekend, c’mon, just guess. You’re never going to believe it, but … Hillary Clinton is so going to run for president. As the young folks might say, cool story, bro.
On the plus side, if there’s one thing Millennials love, it’s a nerd, and Todd is most certainly that. Though he didn’t quite go for the President’s jugular during his interview of Obama, Todd impressed nonetheless. High points: "Are you preparing Americans for another war?,” “What do you tell the person that’s going to get deported before the election, that this decision was essentially made in your hopes of saving a Democratic Senate?,” and a particularly Russertian move during which he pulled out a scrap of paper listing the President’s 2014 State of the Union goals and called him out for achieving exactly one of them: aiding Syrian rebels. While it was the best example of the new Meet the Press capabilities, Todd didn’t press the conversation too far past the President’s prepared talking points.
So, what we’ve got here are goatees, tattoos, a glimmer of hope in a knowledgeable host and promising press panel (though both are playing suspiciously nice so far), and more of the same pandering garbage. From show one, Meet the Press seems to only have a vague notion of who its desired young audience is and whether they know a lot or absolutely nothing about politics. There’s more overtures at edginess than any of the other Sunday morning news programs, to be sure. But there’s also a lot of status quo upheld. Either way, the program as a whole didn’t come across as genuine or helpful to the viewer.
Speaking as a member of the target demographic, in the future, I hope to see Todd’s famed political knowledge shine and his interview skills develop. Something else I’d like to see: The return of the press panel interviewing guests together, with Todd serving as a legitimate moderator, something that he hinted at during a recent Reddit AMA (how young and in touch of him…said your grandpa).
If NBC really wants to make its show worth watching again, it will allow Meet the Press to risk alienating guests and advertisers by making politicians squirm and it won’t fret over MTP being a Washington insider or outsider. And please, oh please, NBC, don’t just “remodel your house” with a bunch of touch screens, throw a bunch of hashtags at us and call it a day.