Replacing Russert likely to be tough task for NBC News

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

NEW YORK -- Still reeling from Tim Russert's death, NBC News must now contemplate replacing the man who not only dominated the Sunday morning talk shows, but served as chief political commentator and ran the Washington bureau.

The "Meet the Press" host had what was arguably the most important and far-reaching job in television news, particularly in an election year. He died of a heart attack Friday while preparing for another week's edition of "Meet the Press."

NBC wasn't talking about potential successors while planning Russert's memorial service today that will be televised on MSNBC from the Kennedy Center. Top anchor Brian Williams canceled an appearance Monday at the Peabody Awards to be with his stricken staff.

NBC has potential successors to Russert on "Meet the Press" already within the company. The decision has big financial implications, because the show reportedly earns more than $60 million a year in profits with relatively few expenses and often has a waiting list of potential advertisers.

A wrong move can provide an opportunity to ABC News' "This Week" and George Stephanopoulos, which has averaged 2.8 million viewers this year. That's second to NBC's 4.17 million, with both networks up from last year during a period of heavy political attention.

"Hardball" host Chris Matthews is the best-known internal candidate. He already has a Sunday talk show syndicated by NBC Universal that's competitive with the networks. "The Chris Matthews Show" averages about 2.3 million viewers, fewer than CBS' "Face the Nation" and more than Fox's show with Chris Wallace.

Matthews was considered a candidate to replace Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" earlier this year, until Schieffer decided to stay on a few more years.

Washington hands David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell are lesser-known, but fit into the objective reporting format that made "Meet the Press" with Russert the first stop for Washington newsmakers. Outsiders Gwen Ifill of PBS' "Washington Week," a former NBC correspondent, and CNN's John King could fit the same mold.

There's some sentiment within NBC News to have Williams or retired anchor Tom Brokaw -- who filled in this past Sunday -- to sit in temporarily, perhaps through the election. That course would give NBC the chance to find a new host and build a format around that person's strengths outside the crucible of an election season.

But that could impose a seven-day-a-week schedule on Williams and keep the semiretired Brokaw busier than he'd like to be.

Russert was a fixture beside first Brokaw, then Williams, on election nights with his contagiously enthusiastic analysis. His loss likely means a larger on-air role for Chuck Todd, the network's political director, who was recruited to NBC News by Russert. Todd has been increasingly visible this political season, particularly on MSNBC.

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