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NBC insiders seen as possible successors to Russert

June 14, 2008|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

The death of Tim Russert, host of the top-rated Sunday public affairs show "Meet the Press," cast a long shadow in the worlds of broadcast journalism and Washington power politics. His passing at age 58 leaves NBC minus one of its marquee players during the most closely watched presidential campaigns in years.

Russert served as the Washington bureau chief of NBC News, but his power extended beyond what that title might suggest. His influence was felt whenever the network bosses sought to make major changes on shows such as "Today" or "NBC Nightly News."

"Nothing happened at NBC News without Tim knowing about it [or] approving of it," one colleague wrote in an e-mail.

In 2001, Russert signed an unprecedented deal that would have kept him at the "Meet the Press" desk until at least 2012. The program, which the blustery and gregarious Russert had hosted since 1991, made its TV debut in 1947 -- three years before Russert's birth -- and is the longest continuously running series in American network TV history.

Speculation on possible successors centers on three on-air personalities already under contract to NBC: David Gregory, the former White House correspondent recently given his own MSNBC show, "Race for the White House"; Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's long-running "Hardball"; and Joe Scarborough, the former congressman and host of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, according to talent representatives who declined to speak on the record for fear of jeopardizing relationships with network management.

It's considered less likely that NBC would reach outside for a brand-name talent, such as CBS News anchor Katie Couric or George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC's "This Week," the No. 2 Sunday show. Stephanopoulos is believed to have two more years on his ABC deal; a network spokeswoman would not comment.

Popular MSNBC host Keith Olbermann is likewise considered a long shot, largely because of his open espousal of liberal viewpoints.

Within NBC, a battle between Matthews and Gregory could be particularly intense, as each has spent months jockeying for favor among Russert and network executives. ("Tim was just a role model for me," a visibly drained Matthews said on MSNBC on Friday night.)

However NBC decides to replace him, though, filling Russert's shoes won't be easy. When Russert signed his long-term deal in 2001, "Meet the Press" reportedly produced a profit of $50 million.

With Russert at its helm, the show had retained a healthy ratings margin over competitors. In the 2007-08 season, it averaged 3.9 million viewers, compared with 2.8 million for ABC's "This Week."

NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker seemed to recognize this by noting in a statement Friday: "The enormity of this loss cannot be overstated."

More important, Russert was a dean of the Washington political establishment. His death unleashed a flood of elegies from President Bush, Sen. John McCain and others.

Politicians haven't always appreciated Russert's attention, though. With his bulky physique and booming baritone, he made a formidable interrogator on "Meet the Press." Russert developed a signature interviewing style: typically reading excerpts from news stories aloud or playing old video clips, and then asking his sometimes-uncomfortable subjects why the cited material seemed inconsistent with views or positions they had taken elsewhere.

Just last month, after Sen. Barack Obama won the North Carolina primary and Sen. Hillary Clinton barely eked out a win in Indiana, Russert jolted party leaders by declaring on MSNBC: "We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and no one's going to dispute it."

The Clinton campaign was so stung by the appraisal that it responded with an ad for Oregon voters openly disparaging Russert and others for talking about "who's up and who's down."

In November, Clinton supporters complained bitterly that Russert had unfairly singled out the candidate during a Democratic debate.

On "Meet the Press" in December, Russert may have hastened the demise of Rudolph Giuliani's presidential bid with a systematic inquiry into the Republican hopeful's personal and political foibles.

Yet Russert also drew criticism for becoming too close with the Beltway elite.

Early last year, during the perjury trial of Bush administration aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a former press aide to Vice President Dick Cheney testified that she often tried to get officials on Russert's show.

"Meet the Press" was "our best format," she said, where the administration could reliably "control the message."

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Times staff writers Matea Gold and Mark Barabak contributed to this story.

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Scott Collins writes the Channel Island column that runs Mondays in Calendar.

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