NBC Courted Jon Stewart For Meet The Press

A desperation move by NBC News?

Jon Stewart

The New Yorker’s Gabriel Sherman reports that NBC tried to get Daily Show host Jon Stewart to host Meet The Press before ultimately settling on Chuck Todd as the replacement for David Gregory:

Before choosing Todd, NBC News president Deborah Turness held negotiations with Jon Stewart about hosting Meet the Press, according to three senior television sources with knowledge of the talks. One source explained that NBC was prepared to offer Stewart virtually “anything” to bring him over. “They were ready to back the Brink’s truck up,” the source said. A spokesperson for NBC declined to comment. James Dixon, Stewart’s agent, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

It makes sense that NBC would make a run at Stewart. The comedian-cum-media-critic possesses something that broadcast executives covet: a loyal, young audience. And it’s not the first time NBC tried recruiting him. According to sources, NBC Entertainment courted Stewart several years ago for a 10 p.m. variety show (the slot ultimately went to Jay Leno). This April, CBS announced Stewart’s Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman next year.

Though not a traditional journalist, Stewart can be a devastatingly effective interrogator, and his Meet the Press might have made a worthy successor to Tim Russert’s no-bullshit interviews. During the home stretch of the 2012 campaign, Stewart grilled Obama for his wan presidential debate performance, asking: “Do you feel you have a stronger affirmative case for a second Barack Obama presidency or a stronger negative case for a Romney presidency?” And last October, Stewart’s clinical dissection of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius laid bare the disaster of the Obamacare rollout, from which Sebelius never recovered.

On some level, I suppose that I can see NBC’s logic in eyeing Stewart to fill the anchor chair on the longest running television series in American history. The Sunday morning genre has been rather staid and, well, boring, for decades now and bringing in fresh blood like Stewart could have potentially been a game changer that would have remade the entire genre. No, we would not have seen a Sunday morning version of The Daily Show, but a Sunday show with Stewart at the helm would have likely been quite different from what we’re used to seeing and, if those shows are going to continue to exist, then maybe that would have been a good thing. Additionally, these shows tend to bring in a largely older demographic while Stewart does an excellent job of attracting younger viewers. Obviously, if they had made the move NBC would have been banking on the idea that many of The Daily Show’s younger viewers would have followed Stewart to his new gig, much like CBS is hoping that many of Stephen Colbert when he takes over for David Letterman on The Late Show next year. Personally, I’m not so sure how likely it would have been that millenials and others would have been to start watching a Sunday morning show that they weren’t watching to being with. At the very least, given their viewing habits, it doesn’t seem likely that they would have been watching it on Sunday. Looking at it from NBC’s perspective, though, it may have made sense. David Gregory’s lackluster time at the helm had left the show mired in third place, where it still currently stands notwithstanding a ratings bump during Todd’s first week on the job, and this might have been a way to change the game significantly. At the very least, Stewart would have been quite a contrast to Bob Schieffer on CBS, George Stephanopolous on ABC, Chris Wallace on Fox, and Candy Crowley on CNN.

As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple notes, though, it’s hard to see how this would have been a good deal for Stewart:

Whatever the money on the table, it wasn’t a good enough offer for Stewart. And who can blame him? At Comedy Central, he can do comedy/commentary and occasionally lapse into journalism/commentary when he’s in the mood. He can editorialize freely, as he did to great Internet effect in denouncing Fox News coverage of the Ferguson protests. Certain Fox News commentators had resisted the framing of Ferguson as a racial issue, and Stewart just exploded. After describing an example of racial profiling experienced by a Comedy Central staffer, Stewart said, “That happens all the time, all of it. Race is there and it is a constant. You’re tired of hearing about it. Imagine how f—ing exhausting it is living it.”

Such words would never, ever fly on the set of “Meet the Press” — at least not without drawing back-channeled opposition from veteran NBC News types. If ever Stewart attempted to flex his satirical muscles on the show, he would have faced a troop of media critics coming down on him for wrecking this storied news program. How fun would that have been?

Wemple has a good point here. In many of the reactions I’ve seen to this report since it broke last night, people have pointed to several of the hard-hitting interviews that Stewart has done on The Daily Show over the years, including an interview of former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that was, arguably, more direct and forceful about the agency’s failures in setting up the PPACA exchange website than anything we saw from the “mainstream” news. Although, to be fair, Kevin Drum points out that Stewart is not as good an  interviewer as that Sebelius interview makes him out to be, and the interview segments on The Daily Show seldom get into serious detail. What makes The Daily Show, though, is the commentary on pop culture, media, and political and social issues that is disguised as direct and biting satire, usually using language that would never be allowed on Sunday morning on the flagship program of NBC’s news division. If Stewart couldn’t bring that part of his talents to the show, then what would really be the point for him? Interviewing the same guests on the same topics week after week isn’t necessarily the most interesting job in the world unless you’re a political nerd, which is one reason why Chuck Todd was a good choice to replace Gregory to begin with, but I’m not sure how interesting Stewart would find it when his own show seems like a lot more fun to do.

On a final note, I’m not sure this would have been a good move overall. Say what you will about the Sunday shows, but they are not supposed to be entertainment they are supposed to be informative. The problem that they suffer from isn’t that they aren’t more “fun” to watch, but that they keep recycling the same conventional wisdom over and over and over again week after week. Bringing in someone like Stewart to host would have either continued that formula, in which case Stewart’s particular talents would have been wasted, or it would have changed the show into something less serious, which defeats the entire point of the genre. There’s a reason, after all, that Stewart’s show is on Comedy Central and not a news network; it is, in the end, a comedy show, not a news program, and it’s probably a good idea that we maintain the difference between the two.

In any case, a move like this would have been a Hail Mary pass type move by NBC, and that’s exactly how it would have been seen and reported in that segment of the media that covers the media. As critical as I am of the Sunday shows, I’m not even sure that it would have been a good idea and, had it failed, it would have been been a disaster of epic proportions from which the show may not have recovered. The Sunday shows are boring and conventional, but that strategy still works for them because there is an audience for it and, because, for better or worse what happens on those shows drives the news cycle for the new weeks. Changing it up might have been fun, but it may not have been good journalism.

But what of Chuck Todd, who ultimately got the job that Stewart was apparently courted for, well, he didn’t say much yesterday, but he did have this on his Twitter feed:

Nicely played.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Entertainment, Media, Popular Culture, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. John Peabody says:

    Broadcasting nerds will tell that “Meet the Press” began on radio in 1945, before moving to television in 1947.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    The problem that they suffer from isn’t that they aren’t more “fun” to watch, but that they keep recycling the same conventional wisdom over and over and over again week after week.

    and to fix a surfeit of conventional wisdom they brought in Chuck Todd?

  3. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    I have reservations about how good Colbert will be as David Letterman–the Sequel, though I’m not a fan of Letterman to begin with either. John Stewart is one of those ideas that seems to have good potential–right up until the explosion.

    “Whoa! Didn’t see that comin’.”

  4. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Were they courting “clown nose on” Stewart, or “clown nose off” Stewart?

    One has to wonder how Stewart would fare in a format where he can’t rigidly control every single aspect of the show and stack the deck to thoroughly against his “guests.” Or if he is allowed to do so, what guests in their right minds would go on.

  5. bill says:

    i doubt if those who get their “news” from comedy central would be up watching tv on sunday morning.
    @Jenos Idanian #13: and he’d be pausing for the laugh tracks too much.

  6. Moosebreath says:

    “The problem that they suffer from isn’t that they aren’t more “fun” to watch, but that they keep recycling the same conventional wisdom over and over and over again week after week.”

    The same guests as well. When was the last time John McCain or Lindsey Graham went a month without being on any of the shows?

  7. beth says:

    @Moosebreath: I remember some columnist wanting to start a “take John McCain and Lindsey Graham to brunch” charity just so he didn’t have to cover them every Sunday spouting the same talking points over and over. The fact that they’re so comfortable doing those shows every week says a lot about how much pushback their b.s. gets from the hosts.

  8. Barry says:

    “… and his Meet the Press might have made a worthy successor to Tim Russert’s no-bullshit interviews. …”

    Bullsh*t. MTP is a boring suck-up to power.

    There’s no way that they wouldn’t have cut Stewart’s b*lls off if he took the job. It’d be like a real reporter signing up for a corporate PR job – a total betrayal of ethics.

  9. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Were they courting “clown nose on” Stewart, or “clown nose off” Stewart?

    Actually, Stewart is very respectful of his guests, I do not find his Daily Show interviews to be a clown act at all. Bill Maher is also very good with people from the opposite side of the spectrum. Both Bill and Jon let their guests have their say – that’s not often the case with talk show ideologues.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    @al-Ameda: Maddow’s a good interviewer. A Republican starts digging a hole, she’ll sit back and quietly hand him shovels.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    Presenting facts is stacking the deck when you are a Republican.

  12. David M says:

    I was under the impression that Meet the Press at least thought of itself as a news show. Is there something they were trying to tell us here?

  13. Nikki says:

    If NBC were serious about turning “Meet the Press” around, it would have given the chair to Rachel Maddow and not Chuck Todd. With the Todd hire, all it got was David Gregory II.

  14. Pinky says:

    Stewart, Todd, Maddow, Maher – you guys are all over the ideological spectrum!

  15. al-Ameda says:

    @Pinky:

    Stewart, Todd, Maddow, Maher – you guys are all over the ideological spectrum!

    Well, the article was about Jon Stewart (a liberal). Therefore liberals like me felt obliged to comment on the interviewing styles of Maher, Maddow, and Stewart. I’m not quite sure why this threw you off?

    Would you like some comments on the interviewing styles of conservatives like Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, Savage, Levin, Ingraham, and Coulter? I happen to think that generally, those people have unwelcoming styles when it comes to interviews with those who are ideologically liberal – no surprise there. Hannity and O’Reilly are better than the other 4 named, but that’s not a big recommendation either.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    @Pinky: You would nominate?

  17. Pinky says:

    I dunno. Is there anyone who is credibly in the middle? Or whose politics aren’t on their sleeves? For that matter, is there anyone who has strong political beliefs, but is able to ask intelligent and impactful questions of people on any side? I keep thinking back to Evans and Novak – they had their beliefs, but God help you if you were siting between them, whatever your politics were. It’s sad that I can’t think of anyone like that. Maybe there are people on the left/center/right who could be that person, but they haven’t been put in the format to demonstrate that skill.

  18. reid says:

    @Pinky: You may dismiss them just because of their politics, but Stewart, Maddow, and Maher all fit the bill for someone who has strong beliefs but can still ask intelligent questions. (Maher can be a bit of a wad at times.) They’re all smart and honest, which, sadly, is more than can be said of most of the clowns on the right. I don’t even think Stewart is all that liberal. He’s more pragmatic and stayed still as part of the country marched off to the right end of the political spectrum, skewing the average (in the media) with them. Other examples like that are Letterman and me.

    I get the impression that Todd is just another useless establishment talking head these days. There are much bigger problems than with him than whatever his politics happen to be.

  19. PogueMahone says:

    I can see how the conversation went down.

    During rumors that Meet the Press was looking for a new host, Jon Stewart received a phone call..
    .

    MTP: Hello, Mr. Stewart!! This is the executive producer of Meet the Press calling. I would like to talk to you about—

    JS: Whoa, let me stop you right there… I’m a comic, not a lapdog.

  20. gVOR08 says:

    @Pinky: My own feeling is that the right has become so extreme that even such commonplaces as believing evolution and AGW qualify you as a radical left winger in their view. I often refer to a center, but I realize I mean a historical center. I don’t think there is a middle today.

    ____________
    In these cases I’d like a different word than “believe”. Believing in evolution or AGW is like believing the sun will set in the west tonight. It’s not the same thing at all as believing tax cuts for the wealthy create jobs.

  21. Pinky says:

    @PogueMahone:

    ” I’m a comic, not a lapdog.”

    Stewart might say that, he probably even things that, but he’s more of a lapdog than David Gregory ever was.

  22. Grewgills says:

    @Pinky:
    Said like someone that never watches his show. He gives hardball questions to both sides and he asks real follow up questions to his quests. Gregory rarely asked a difficult question and when he did, he never followed up forcefully. His criticisms or CNN are on par with his criticisms or FOX, he tears them both apart. I think we may have different definitions of lap dog.

  23. Tillman says:

    @Pinky:

    I dunno. Is there anyone who is credibly in the middle? Or whose politics aren’t on their sleeves?

    “Can we get a middle man, or someone who can convincingly fake it?”

  24. al-Ameda says:

    @Pinky:

    Stewart might say that, he probably even things that, but he’s more of a lapdog than David Gregory ever was.

    Please. Jon Stewart is, in the context of today’s political spectrum, a center-left liberal. He’s not a mouth-breathing talking point machine.

    David Gregory is a very moderate liberal, as much a center-oriented person as you will see these days. On the conservative side David Brooks is moderate.

    People no longer recognize moderates, everything is a conspiracy to indoctrinate – in a way, we’ve given up the middle.

  25. C. Clavin says:

    Evans and Novak?
    Really?

  26. Pinky says:

    @Grewgills:

    He gives hardball questions to both sides

    He goes after hypocrites and blowhards on either side; conservatives for not being liberal; and liberals for not being sufficiently, consistently liberal. And he’s a lot quicker to notice hypocrisy and blowhardiness from the right.

  27. Andre Kenji says:

    I don´t know Gregory´s politics, but he is not a liberal. Both Maher and Stewart are comedians, not journalists. And frankly, when Maher is doing “serious” work he has the deepness of a plate. I like Rachel Maddow, but MTP is not her turf.

    Regarding MTP, I understand that´s very difficult to deal with the necessity of having access to politicians and asking tough questions on the same time. I asked about that to Chuck Todd on that AMA on Reddit, and he said that he hoped that politicians would not fear facing tough questions.

    But they need to fix their panel. There are dozens of economists, authors, historians, etc that could be going to their roundtable, there is no problem of access here. They don´t need the same guests every Sunday, that´s inexcusable.

  28. Grewgills says:

    @Pinky:
    I don’t agree with your characterization of his going after conservatives for not being liberal or of liberals for not being consistently liberal enough. He is quick to notice hypocrisy and blowhardiness from Fox and CNN and a couple other outlets, CNBC comes to mind. That isn’t so much a right/left split as there being a very high concentration of hypocrites and blowhards there. The ones on Fox like to call him out and he responds, usually doing far better in the exchange than they do.
    That said, even by your characterization, I don’t see how that makes him as much of a lap dog (much less more of one) as any of the Sunday morning hosts who are far more concerned with a regular supply of the usual suspects than with anything approaching journalism.

  29. Grewgills says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    when Maher is doing “serious” work he has the deepness of a plate

    I think you might be giving him too much credit. He has been occasionally funny, but that’s about it.

  30. gVOR08 says:

    @al-Ameda: David Brooks is a Republican partisan activist. He does the moderate act as part of being the world’s greatest concern troll.

  31. beth says:

    @Grewgills: I watched his extended interview with Panetta and was pleased to see Stewart bring up questions about paying for extended wars, caring for more vets when we can’t care for the ones we have now, how do we spread out the involvement among more Americans other than the 1% of military families that currently bear the burden. He was highly critical of Obama’s strategy (calling it incoherent) and of Congress for not coming back and debating this latest military action. None of the other interviews I’ve seen with Panetta discussed these topics – they seemed to be more typically focused on political aspects.

  32. Andre Kenji says:

    Jon Stewart can ask tough questions to his guests because he has access to a very influential and very young demographic. Chuck Todd is just another guy with a Sunday show on TV, and sunday show are just another show about politics on Tevee.

  33. Guarneri says:

    A faux journalist to cover a faux president. And they said “Network” was a parody……

  34. John425 says:

    Given that NBC/MSNBC News is already a joke, they should hire Stewart and go all in and give Comedy Central a run for it’s money.

  35. al-Ameda says:

    @John425:

    Given that NBC/MSNBC News is already a joke, they should hire Stewart and go all in and give Comedy Central a run for it’s money.

    Fox News is already an equivalent to Comedy Central.

  36. Grewgills says:

    @al-Ameda:
    Why do you have such a low opinion of Comedy Central?

  37. Matt says:

    @Grewgills: dammit I was going to say the same.

  38. al-Ameda says:

    @Grewgills:
    @Matt:

    Why do you have such a low opinion of Comedy Central?

    Comedy Central is excellent.

    But … Fox News is funny without even trying, it has to be where Stephen Colbert got his idea for his own show. Fox News should probably get a Nobel Prize for Unintentional Comedy, they are that good at spoofing the news and getting millions of Americans to buy in.

  39. John425 says:

    @al-Ameda: Unlike MSNBC, Fox at least has guests of differing opinions whereas MSNBC acts like state-owned TV and reminds me of the old Soviet machinery.

  40. al-Ameda says:

    @John425:

    Unlike MSNBC, Fox at least has guests of differing opinions whereas MSNBC acts like state-owned TV and reminds me of the old Soviet machinery.

    As long as we’re into old Soviet referencing: I’ve often heard people refer to Fox News as “Fox Pravda.”

  41. John425 says:

    @al-Ameda: @al-Ameda: That’s probably because your acquaintances miss the old Pravda, Big Lies and Doublespeak. Nowadays blogs and independent reporting shoot holes in such apparatchik as MSNBC-eh, comrade?