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Who's meeting NBC's 'Press'?

November 26, 2008|Matea Gold | Gold is a Times staff writer.

NEW YORK — NBC executives are closing in on a decision about who will take over "Meet the Press," its venerable Sunday morning political talk show, with the announcement coming possibly on Dec. 7.

According to network sources, that may be Tom Brokaw's last day on the air as interim moderator of the program, a post he assumed after the sudden death of longtime host Tim Russert in June.

People close to the process said that they did not yet know who would be ultimately named to the job, arguably Washington's most powerful journalistic perch. The deliberations have been closely guarded by NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker and NBC News President Steve Capus, who have not yet made a decision, said spokeswoman Allison Gollust.

Barring a last-minute surprise, network insiders and television news observers expect the new moderator -- or moderators -- will be drawn from a short list of candidates that include NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory, PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell and NBC political director Chuck Todd. Dark horses include CBS anchor Katie Couric, whose name was floated in internal discussions, according to two sources, but is apparently not interested.

Veteran ABC anchor Ted Koppel has also been mentioned as a contender. But Koppel, who announced Tuesday that he was leaving his post at Discovery Channel, said he had not spoken with NBC and had little interest in getting into "a weekly grind again."

Network executives have been wrestling with not only who would be best to lead the 61-year-old show for a coming generation but what format the program should take.

In an interview, Ifill said that she had informal conversations about the job with NBC officials several weeks ago, but no offer has been made.

"I had the impression that they didn't know what they wanted the show to be yet," she said. "I think they were trying to figure out how I would fit. But I don't know if they've figured it out yet. If they have, they haven't told me."

At stake is not just the program's legacy, but its dominance over the Sunday morning competition. After Brokaw took over, as viewers' interest in the election peaked, "Meet the Press" increased its lead over ABC's "This Week" and CBS' "Face the Nation," according to Nielsen Media Research. Since the end of June, the NBC program has averaged more than 4 million viewers, up 27% from the same period last year, while ABC has drawn just under 3 million viewers, up 22%, and CBS has attracted 2.8 million, up 19%.

NBC executives hope the next iteration of "Meet the Press" maintains momentum.

In its early days, "Meet the Press" had a moderator and a regular panelist who occasionally filled in for the host. Later, the show came to be defined by a singular moderator -- most recently Russert, the longest serving host, who helmed the show for 17 years until he had a heart attack in the network's Washington bureau.

Instead of simply naming a successor to Russert, a larger-than-life figure whose death was keenly felt at NBC, executives are considering the possibility of multiple hosts, including a trio of panelists.

That could help address any shortcoming in gravitas seen in Gregory or Todd, each of whom is still in his 30s. According to a network source familiar with internal thinking, it appears unlikely that Todd, in particular, would be named solo anchor, despite the high regard for him, because he has not had substantial television experience. But in some ways, the relative youth of both men is an asset.

"I think they want a franchise that has some potential for longevity, and that's where Chuck and Gregory are good choices," said another newsroom employee.

Ifill's presence would also help signal a new era at "Meet the Press." Currently the moderator of "Washington Week" on PBS, the anchor would be the first African American moderator of the NBC program, a timely milestone that would coincide with the inauguration of the country's first black president.

Ifill worked at NBC for five years covering Washington and was a favorite of Russert, who frequently had her on the program, which she called a "national treasure."

On Tuesday, she said she would be honored to be tapped for the show, "but if not, I have a job that I'm happy with."

--

matea.gold@latimes.com

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