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Ratings give 'Meet the Press' a grilling

So far, host David Gregory seems safe, but in the post-Tim Russert era, the show has fallen to No. 3 among Sunday-morning talkfests.

MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) Steve Inskeep, Nancy Gibbs, David Gregory, Kathleen Parker, Bill Richardson -- (Photo by: Kristopher Connor/NBC)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) Steve Inskeep, Nancy Gibbs, David Gregory, Kathleen Parker, Bill Richardson -- (Photo by: Kristopher Connor/NBC)Read moreKristopher Connor/NBC

If Meet the Press moderator David Gregory were a guest on his own show, he knows the kinds of questions he'd be asked.

Why have your ratings been falling? Is the show in trouble? Is your job in trouble?

"I get it," says Gregory, the face of the longest-running TV program in American history (founded: 1947). "Do I want to be number one in the ratings? Every week I want to be number one, and we fight like hell to get there. And it's tough right now. It's a fight."

He adds, "I'm not just trying to sell you - well, I am trying to sell you - but I'm not going to B.S. you, either. Yeah, it's hard. I see what our challenges are. But we're going to fix our problems."

The main problem: The great-granddaddy of Sunday-morning Beltway blabfests isn't just not No. 1. It's No. 3 and in a three-year slide. During the first three months of this year, the NBC program finished behind perennial rivals Face the Nation on CBS and This Week With George Stephanopoulos on ABC, despite being helped by two weeks of Winter Olympics hoopla. In the final quarter of last year, viewing among people ages 25 to 54, the preferred group for TV news advertisers, fell to its lowest level ever.

Bad enough. But fairly or not, Gregory's Meet the Press still gets measured against the lofty peaks scaled by Tim Russert, his predecessor. Russert, the folksy inquisitor, ruled the ratings for more than a decade until his death in June 2008. He often attracted an audience 40 percent larger than those of his rivals, an unheard-of margin in television.

But now - to paraphrase Russert's famous sign-off - if it's Sunday, it's not necessarily Meet the Press that Americans are watching.

These days, the leader is Face the Nation, hosted by Bob Schieffer, the grandfatherly 77-year-old newsman. Schieffer not only attracts the largest overall audience (a weekly average of 3.35 million during the first three months of 2014, 5 percent more than This Week, 8 percent more than MTP, and 61 percent more than Fox News Sunday) but the largest audience among the coveted 25-to-54 set, too. (Schieffer's competitors are quick to point out that comparisons aren't quite fair since Face the Nation's ratings are based on its first half-hour, not the standard full hour; the program's second half-hour isn't broadcast by CBS stations in many cities.)

The Sunday shows - which account for what Schieffer calls "the smartest morning on TV" - are more than just prestige projects for the networks; the relatively large and affluent audiences they attract make them magnets for corporate image advertisers that pay premium prices for airtime. Russert's dominating position helped NBC earn a reported $60 million from Meet the Press in 2007.

Thus, MTP's meltdown has sounded alarm bells inside NBC News and attracted the attention of its new president, Deborah Turness, who arrived from Britain's ITV News in August. Gregory's job does not appear to be in any immediate jeopardy, but there are plenty of signs of concern.

Last year, the network undertook an unusual assessment of the 43-year-old journalist, commissioning a psychological consultant to interview his friends and even his wife. The idea, according to a network spokeswoman, Meghan Pianta, was "to get perspective and insight from people who know him best." But the research project struck some at NBC as odd, given that Gregory has been employed there for nearly 20 years.

Around the same time, the network appointed a new executive producer at MTP, Rob Yarin, a veteran media consultant. Yarin, who had worked with Gregory on an MSNBC show, Race for the White House, during the 2008 campaign, succeeded Betsy Fischer Martin, who reigned over MTP for 11 years. Fischer Martin had helped Russert soar to glory, but had disagreed with Gregory over matters of style and substance (she was promoted to oversee all of NBC's political coverage).

In interviews, Yarin and Gregory say they are tinkering with the show to keep it abreast of a changing media environment. They've made the program's pacing faster, with shorter interview segments. The range of topics and interview subjects has been opened up, too. Last month, for example, Gregory interviewed NCAA president Mark Emmert about proposals to unionize student-athletes - stealing a little thunder, he notes, from CBS, which was televising the NCAA basketball tournament at the time.

The overall effect is that the program now bears only a vague resemblance to the one over which Russert presided. Whereas Russert would spend multiple segments grilling a single news-maker, Gregory now barely goes more than six or seven minutes on any interview or topic.

 Gregory says the new look "delivers on the core of what Meet the Press is" but "widens the aperture. . . . I'm dedicated to building something that says we're not just thinking about politics. We're thinking about who the real influencers are in this country."

The impossible burden for Gregory, of course, has been to follow the beloved Russert. As one NBC colleague describes it, Russert is a "ghost" who still haunts Gregory's tenure at MTP six years into his run.

"I am fully aware that there are a lot of people who believe Tim Russert will never be replaced, and I've never tried to replace Tim Russert," he says. "I have nothing but respect and admiration for Tim and his legacy. And I'm doing my own thing, just like Tim did."

But he also adds, a little more defensively, "I've covered the White House, I've covered 9/11, the road to war, constitutional crises, and honestly, I wouldn't be able to focus on this job if I was going to let that stuff get to me. I knew it would be there going in, and I'm just focused on being David Gregory and taking the show to the next level."

He gets a limited endorsement from Tom Brokaw, the former anchorman who moderated Meet the Press on an interim basis after Russert's passing.

"David knew what he was in for when he took the job," says Brokaw. "Media habits are changing, and the competition is getting better. . . . I won't get into whether David is the right guy. NBC has already said he's got the job and that's what counts. But he deserves a fair shot at evolving the program."