In December of 2008, David Gregory took over as the permanent host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the then-41-year-old current affairs show and longest running program on network television. Over two years later, Gregory was in first place and even drawing the same number of viewers as his predecessor, Tim Russert. The beginning of Gregory’s ratings fall would finally arrive in May of 2011, when Gregory accused Newt Gingrich of racism for using the words “food stamps” in reference to President Obama.
With all the talk about Meet the Press losing its first place standing and hitting ratings lows not seen in two decades, I was curious to find out if the loss of the universally-respected Russert is what killed the show. David Gregory is certainly no Tim Russert! was my thinking going in. But if you look closely at the ratings, for a couple years, Gregory pretty much was Tim Russert.
Between Gregory taking over as permanent host in Dec of 2008, and the beginning of February 2009, the ratings for Meet the Press did fall — and by quite a bit. But that ratings fall can’t be blamed on Gregory. Meet the Press was coming off an extraordinary news cycle surrounding a historic presidential election and all of the publicity over Russert’s untimely death.
An apples-to-apples look at the ratings proves that this early-2009 ratings fall had nothing to do with the loss of Russert. It was merely the ratings settling back to Russert-level norms.
On average, throughout all of 2007 (an off-election year like Gregory’s first year in 2009), TV Newser reported that with Russert as host, Meet the Press was in first place and averaged “3.544 million … followed by CBS’ Face the Nation with 2.622, ABC’s This Week with 2.597 and FOX’s News Sunday with 1.263.”
Believe it or not, those numbers look almost exactly like the numbers David Gregory pulled in on average during the entire first quarter of 2011:
NBC “Meet the Press” 3.52M
CBS “Face the Nation” 3.00M
ABC “This Week” 2.60M
FOX “Fox News Sunday” 1.35M
Things were good.
But just a few months later, in May of 2011, Gregory would have his fateful meeting with Gingrich, where the Meet the Press host accused the then-Republican presidential candidate of racism over his use of the words “food stamp”:
DAVID GREGORY: First of all, you gave a speech in Georgia with language a lot of people think could be coded racially-tinged language, calling the president, the first black president, a food stamp president.
NEWT GINGRICH: Oh, come on, David.
GREGORY: What did you mean? What was the point?
The outcry from the political right against Gregory was immediate and fierce.
On Sunday May 1, 2011, two weeks before the Gingrich interview, Meet the Press ranked number one and drew 3.46 million viewers — numbers perfectly in line with Russert’s 2007 average and Gregory’s average the first quarter of 2011.
It was only after the Gingrich debacle that the ratings dynamic shifted, and did so dramatically.
Here are the total number of Meet the Press viewers, demo viewers, and the show’s ranking among its competition for eight random Sundays over six months in the aftermath of Gregory’s Gingrich interview:
July 17, 2011: 2.70M – 851K -1
July 21, 2011: 2.46M – 680K – 2
July 28, 2011: 2.284M – 627K – 3
September 18, 2011: 2.81M – 875K – 1
Sept 25, 2011: 2.49M – 755K – 2
Oct 23, 2011: 2.91M – 985K – 2
November 13, 2011: 3.02M – 1.02M – 1
Dec. 4, 2011: 3.02M – 794K – 2
A mere five months later, in May of 2012, Meet the Press would hit its lowest ratings since Gregory became the show’s moderator.
The following month, in June of 2012, Meet the Press would hit a 20-year ratings low in the 25-54 demo.
It doesn’t, therefore, feel outrageous to speculate that Gregory’s race-baiting of Gingrich cost its host and the show dearly — probably among right-of-center viewers for whom Meet the Press had been must-see Sunday morning viewing.
Simply put, Gregory violated a trust with viewers. And unfortunately for him and The House That Russert Built, rather than attempt to rebuild that trust, Gregory has spent the last year violating it again and again.
In December of 2012, Gregory made a public spectacle of himself imperiously waving a high-capacity ammunition magazine under the nose of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre — a sanctimonious act that was probably illegal.
Then came the collapse…
That same week, Betsy Fischer Martin, a 22 year Meet the Press veteran and senior Executive Producer, exited the show.
Two months later, just last Sunday, Meet the Press hit a 21-year ratings low.
This morning, NBC pushed back against reports Gregory would be fired.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC