Can the Sunday morning talk show be saved?
For decades, Sunday morning’s Big Four — NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CBS’s “Face the Nation,” ABC’s “This Week” and “Fox News Sunday” — were an integral part of the Beltway news ecosystem. Leading political figures, hungry for the big soapbox and establishment cred the shows conveyed, clamored for bookings and sometimes made agenda-setting news.
The conventional wisdom was that no pol could launch a viable presidential campaign without first passing “the Russert Primary,” a lengthy grilling by the late Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” In their day, Bob Schieffer and David Brinkley commanded similarly powerful positions as moderators on what insiders liked to call “Face” and “Week,” respectively.
Washington’s most newsworthy VIPs once scored bragging rights by achieving what became known as a “Full Ginsburg” — an honorific named for William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer during the scandal leading up to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, who set a new standard for media exposure by appearing on five major Sunday news broadcasts on the same day.
But while the four most highly-rated shows still reach a relatively large audience — a combined average of about 9.3 million per week over the past year — there’s not nearly as much clamoring. Producers of the programs acknowledge that they often struggle to book the people who were once regulars in the greenroom on Sunday.
The programs’ shifting fortunes tell a tale about the changing media landscape, and about politics, too.
Political leaders now have multiple opportunities to deliver their message — cable-news live hits, podcasts, talk radio, social media — and they don’t have to wait until Sunday.
“Trump established the reality that he could address a very large audience very quickly just by using his thumbs alone” on Twitter, says Mark Lukasiewicz, a former ABC and NBC News executive who is now dean of Hofstra University’s communication school. “The Sunday shows are no longer the gatekeepers for political conversations on TV. They were born at a time when politicians needed TV to reach their audience. That’s far less true today.”
There are friendlier forums for a politician to deliver a message, with sympathetic moderators and like-minded viewers, he said. That leaves little incentive for a newsmaker to face probing questions from tough, seasoned interviewers.
And the message doesn’t travel as far as it once did. Although the Big Four programs increased their audiences during the first two years of the Trump administration, the trend has been downward since then. The four broadcasts collectively lost about 16 percent of their viewers during 2021-22 compared with four years earlier, according to Nielsen figures.
The number of younger viewers — the 25-54 age group valued highly by advertisers — has dropped by one-third, weakening the shows’ financial viability.
The smaller audience creates a kind of self-perpetuating downward cycle, said another former TV executive: Leading political figures have less incentive to show up, creating fewer compelling interviews and thus even less incentive to watch. (When Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia achieved a Full Ginsburg this summer, it barely made a ripple in Washington.)
“It used to be, if you were Sen. X or Y and you had big news on Wednesday, you kept your mouth shut until Sunday,” said this individual, who asked not to be identified to preserve relationships with former colleagues. “Who does that now?”
Hence, the need for a little re-invention.
“I think our show has become less stuffy,” said Dax Tejera, the ABC program’s executive producer. The 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 stick with the old norms of what a Sunday show is supposed to look like. We want to offer a wider aperture on the news.”
“Fox News Sunday” and “Meet the Press,” which each lost about a quarter of their audience over the past four years, have both been doing some tinkering, too.
“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 a generation younger than Wallace — to take over. She debuted in her new role last week with a roster of guests including Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Jane Hartley, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, and former Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte — and ratings that the network touted as a promising increase over the year to date.
“Meet the Press” has been virtually synonymous with NBC News since its debut in 1947, the longest continuously aired program on network television. Hosted since 2014 by Chuck Todd, it has spun off a variety of brand extensions in recent years, including single-topic specials (“Meet the Press Reports”), a podcast, a blog and a newsletter. There’s even a Meet the Press film festival.
But efforts to expand its Sunday franchise have lately taken a few swerves. After launching a weekday version of the program on MSNBC in 2015 with Todd, NBC News last year demoted “Meet the Press Daily” from late afternoons to a less-watched midday timeslot — and then in June moved it to the NBC News Now streaming service.
Carrie Budoff Brown, hired last year from Politico to become NBC’s senior vice president of “Meet the Press,” says the move was designed to extend the franchise to a younger audience, and as a hedge against the ongoing decline of traditional “linear” TV. “The audience is in many places, not just in front of the TV on Sunday morning,” she said. “There’s a lot of competition, but I’d rather be in our place, with a familiar and trusted brand, than where our competitors are.”
But streaming news has yet to catch on with audiences in a big way, which suggests that “Meet the Press Daily” now has a far smaller audience and lower profile than it did on MSNBC. (NBC News does not break out audience numbers for its streaming platform.) The shift triggered new speculative headlines that Todd’s tenure is in jeopardy; NBC has publicly expressed its support for him.
The Sunday morning shows were also jolted by the pandemic, which for months placed limits on the traditional mingling of VIPs in news studios.
“Face the Nation,” which has aired on CBS since 1954 and is currently hosted by Margaret Brennan, suspended its weekly roundtable discussions with Washington journalists and pundits. Executive producer Mary Hager said that format may return as the news demands.
But in the meantime, the new ease of connecting with guests remotely has expanded the pool of interview subjects — allowing the show to reach beyond Washington, and to address an array of topics beyond politics, such as climate change.
“We do less political analysis, but we are still looking at what are the politics that have gone into policy and what are the politics that have come out of the policy,” Hager said.
Despite the various headwinds, Hager believes the Sunday shows are a durable and necessary part of television. “There’s always going to be an audience for making sense of the noise,” with experienced anchors leading the proceedings, she said.
Lukasiewicz isn’t so sure. “I don’t want to suggest less [news and political] dialogue on TV 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.