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'If It's Sunday'... It's Tim Russert

"Meet the Press," the longest-running network TV program in the United States and possibly the world, will be inducted into the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame at the TV Management Luncheon at NAB2007 on April 16. Accepting the honor on behalf of the program will be its moderator, Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief for NBC News. He recently spoke about the Sunday morning news staple, now in its 60th year, with TV Technology news correspondent John Merli.


(click thumbnail)Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press"TV TECHNOLOGY: What needs do you think MTP fulfills for viewers to keep it on the air for six decades?

RUSSERT: I think what accounts for its success is that it's true to its mission. When I first became host and sat down 15 years ago with Lawrence Spivak, who founded the program, he said the mission is simple: Learn as much as you can about your guest and his or her position on the issues--and then take the other side [laughter].

He said be persistent but be civil, allow people to finish their thoughts, then ask the appropriate follow-up questions, and the audience will know whether they're answering or ducking. It's been excellent advice.

TV TECHNOLOGY: The show has made some significant format changes over the years. How did you evolve into the current, more informal format?

RUSSERT: I have either watched or read every transcript of every single program going back nearly 60 years because I was very curious about formats. It started out as a half-hour program, television was very new, and politicians were not surrounded by handlers and media advisors like now.

They were more candid initially in their responses. Now, because of the explosion of the information spectrum, along with 24/7 cable and other Sunday programs, you have to be unique. What we try to do is peel away the boilerplate, get beyond the spin, and really try to have a discussion and let viewers gain some real insight into the thinking of a political figure.

TV TECHNOLOGY: And it's apparent you like to keep the format flexible.

RUSSERT: Very much so. We often have only one guest in the whole hour, which is very unusual today in network television--one guest in a full hour. Sometimes we present panel discussions among journalists, sometimes special in-depth interviews with presidential candidates, and Senate candidate debates, and other formats.

TV TECHNOLOGY: Technically speaking, you seem to offer extremes. Along with repurposing MTP on so-called "new media" venues like podcasts and broadband streaming, you also have your infamous clipboard with that handy Magic Marker to keep track of election numbers by hand, and often forego the use of video clips in favor of plain text on-screen to cite a guest's previous quotes.

RUSSERT: I think the simplicity of all that is appealing to people. It is counter-programming, in a way, and cuts through the clutter. You don't find it on most other programs.

When I started out hosting 15 years ago, I wanted to eliminate [denials] by guests when they said they never said something, by showing them in plain text that they had said it. Years ago I had people high up at NBC tell me, "you know, Russert, that's very 1950s TV." And I told them, "I happen to have some very fond memories of '50s television because a lot of it was quite memorable!"

I'm on the phone much of the day talking with sources, to our correspondents, trying to stay on top of everything. I read six or seven papers a day. We have to stay on top of many events [simultaneously] because we often don't know who our guests are going to be until Thursday or Friday of that week.

TV TECHNOLOGY: As a network Washington bureau chief, any observations about the digital transition now underway, and any plans for MTP in HD?

RUSSERT: Actually, I think "Meet the Press" was the first program to be aired in HDTV on the [NBC] network. But one time only.

TV TECHNOLOGY: Why only one time?

RUSSERT: As I recall, mostly because of the costs back then [a few years ago]. I love high-definition on a big screen. At home, by the way, I have a 63-inch plasma television. I've had it for about three years.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What brand?

RUSSERT: It's a Fujitsu. It's great. I have both cable and a satellite dish at home. I love to surf, especially for big news events.

TV TECHNOLOGY: In the past couple of years, NBC News content has been repurposed for a variety of different devices. Are you fearful such wider 24/7 accessibility may hurt your Sunday broadcast ratings, and have your ever seen MTP on an iPod?

RUSSERT: My son, who's a junior at Boston College, was the first to encourage me to go on [MP3 players]. Also Betsy Fischer, the executive producer for MTP, is very technically savvy. She mastered computers long before I did. She was a real driving force into streaming and such. In fact at one point early on, I think MTP was the fifth-highest download from iTunes. Of course, I was curious as to what were the first four--and was told it was "music" and "porn"!

Yeah, I have seen the show on an iPod. MPT is now [repeated] on cable MSNBC twice on Sunday, and we're on radio [NBC affiliates and C-SPAN Radio], and on iTunes, as well as on our MSNBC Web site for [streaming and podcasts]. We figure we get an extra million viewers on our cable repeats alone, and between that and being available online, we think it's actually enhanced the audience for our regular broadcast of the show. It certainly hasn't hurt our audience. It's been a wonderful experience because it's taught me a lot about the new frontiers of technology and how people want to get their information.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What are your own plans for the next few years regarding MTP?

RUSSERT: My contract runs through 2012. This is my 16th year as moderator and host. There's nothing else I'd rather to do in television. I consider "Meet the Press" a national treasure and I feel like a custodian. I plan to work very hard to make sure that whenever I do have to depart, the next person will find it in very good shape.