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Chuck Todd Wants to Take NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ Beyond the Beltway

Variety logo Variety 1/29/2017 Brian Steinberg
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 Viewers of “Meet the Press” exepect to see the show’s moderator, Chuck Todd, holding forth from Washington, D.C.  and talking about politics and policy. Were they surprised to see him wandering around Little Joe’s Coney Island in Warren, Michigan, where the menu offers fried mushrooms and a “Stacked Ham Pita”?

They should prepare themselves for similar bewilderment. Todd wants to get “Meet the Press” on the road as much as possible in 2017.

Before the recent presidential election, said Todd, big media outlets were guilty of spending too much time on the inner workings of the nation’s capital –  much to everyone’s determinent. “We were doing our job helping to explain Washington to America,” he said in an interview. “But also, our job is helping explain America to Washington.”

In addition to reporting from Macomb County in Michigan, Todd has also ventured to Clarksburg, West Virginia. That effort to check out various parts of the country will continue in 2017, and “Meet the Press” will back live events throughout the year as well. In one, Todd will address attendees at the SXSW festival, where he will discuss whether increasing reliance on data is destroying the U.S. political system.

It’s all part of a broader effort to make “Meet the Press” a more regular part of the lives of news aficionados – not just a Sunday occasion. With social media delivering news, analysis and commentary in rapid-fire fashion, weekly bursts of content no longer suffice, Todd suggested, pointing to circulation declines and waning influence at Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. “It is hard to sustain a weekly model. It is very hard. I didn’t want to see ‘Meet the Press’ or any of the Sunday shows relegated to the dustbin of media history,” he said. “My goal is to make sure ‘Meet the Press’ is an institution, not just a Sunday institution.”

Every TV-news mainstay faces similar challenges, particularly as news junkies migrate to faster means of delivery. In 2017, more people are likely to get their headlines pushed to them on a smartphone or passed along to them by a pal on Facebook. About two-thirds of U.S. adults said they got news about the presidential election in a weeklong range from digital sources, in a 2016 survey analyzed in the Pew Research Center’s annual “State of the News Media” report. In that survey, 48% stated they consulted news sites or apps, and 44% said they used social-networking sites.  In contrast, just 17% of U.S. adults said in 2012 that they turned regularly to any social media platforms for campaign news.

“My goal is to not be the last moderator” of the show, said Todd. The venerable NBC News program, which started in November of 1947, is in its 70th year on the air.

Since he took the reins of the program in the fall of 2014, “Meet the Press” has branched out to have a presence on MSNBC Monday through Friday. In October of last year, he launched a podcast offshoot in which he offers a Q&A with an interesting personality. He and NBC News are mulling the idea of attaching the show’s imprimateur to documentaries about politics.

“One of the great creative explosions that has happened in the last 15 years is the improvements in documentaries,” he said. “There are more great artists doing non-fiction than they are fiction. We have a whole generation of consumers that learn as much from audio-visual as they do from books. I’m not saying documentaries are the new books. Books are still books. But documentaries are another tool in the storytelling box.”

The show’s Sunday ratings have been on the rise, reflecting the intense interest in the recent election cycle. “Meet the Press” has seen its viewership among people between 25 and 54 – the demographic most coveted by advertisers – rise almost 19% season to date as of January 22, according to data from Nielsen, and leads its rivals in that measure. Overall viewership has risen 8.7% during the same period

A fast metabolism is in Todd’s career DNA. He got his start in journalism at The Hotline, a daily political briefing often considered must-have in congressional offices and the Washington, D.C. operations of major news outlets.  “I sort of grew up with the idea that the news cycle changed every hour, not every day,” he said.

Now, as  the show tries to broaden its presence, he wants to make sure “Meet the Press” offers a wider view of what’s happening in the country. “I would say the fairest critique of the press” was that “we failed to tell the story of America,” he said. Media outlets might offer an account of an immigrant fighting deportation, but not of a young opioid addict in a small Midwestern town trying to make a living. The perception in a good part of the nation, he suggested, is that “the media didn’t care about me. They are not talking about our struggles in this town.” He intends to spend part of 2017 looking at some of the damage caused by the disruption of the current digital revolution as well as the  move toward globalization.

Covering the ins and outs of the Trump administration could get in the way of some of those efforts. Todd raised eyebrows during last Sunday’s broadcast when he verbally sparred with Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to President Trump. The two discussed the reasons behind White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer making debunked claims about the size of the crowd at recent inauguration ceremonies. Conway said Spicer offered “alternative facts,” which Todd countered were simply “falsehoods.”

Despite the contentious exchange, and her defense of Spicer’s behavior, Todd would have Conway back as a guest. “I am not a believer in keeping people off programs. I think that’s a dangerous road to go down,” he said – particularly when the people in question are in positions of power that affect lives. “I would say beware of blackballing. I think blackballing is a slippery slope.”

Yet he will push guests to stick to provable details. “I think we have to stick up and agree upon a basic set of facts,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want my show to be about information.” As “Meet the Press” expands to new formats, it will have a lot more of it to present.

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