We are in the midst of our “It’s the First” blog series, and today we are talking about a show that debuted in 1947 to bring us the news: Meet the Press (although the show actually began on radio in 1945). Although we hear a lot about Gunsmoke and The Simpsons being on air for so many years, rarely do people talk about the fact that Meet the Press was one of the first television shows and is still going strong. Of course, it looks a bit different than it did when it first began.
The show, which will be celebrating its 75th anniversary next year, features interviews with national leaders about politics, economics, foreign policy and other critical global topics. Noted journalists and experts provide analysis, discussion, and reviews of the past week’s events. The show began during the second official television season. It was the first live network news show, and was the first live news show that a sitting president appeared on; in this case it was Gerald Ford.
The program has had twelve different hosts during its history beginning with Martha Rountree. The first guest was James Farley who had served as postmaster general, Democratic National Committee chairman, and campaign manager for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Meet the Press is on the air in most markets on Sunday morning on NBC. It is also on Sirius/XM and syndicated on Westwood One, and is often replayed on C-Span.
For the first forty-five years of its airing, it was a 30-minute program but was extended to an hour in 1992. General Foods was the sponsor for the first television seasons. Rountree, the only female, hosted until 1953 when Ned Brooks took over for 12 years. Lawrence Spivak, who had hosted the radio version was the moderator until 1975. Bill Monroe stepped up to the plate next, hosting until 1984. The next seven years had a revolving door of hosts including Roger Mudd and Marvin Kalb, cohosts; Chris Wallace; and Garrick Utley.
Tim Russert, network bureau chief in Washington DC took over in 1991 and remained with the show until his death in 2008. After his death, Tom Brokaw had a special edition of the show dedicated to Russert, leaving his chair empty on the set.
NBC news anchor Brian Williams hosted the next regularly scheduled show following Russert’s death and Brokaw became interim host through the 2008 general elections. Following the elections, Brokaw continued the first half hour with David Gregory taking over the second half hour. Gregory became the sole host in December of 2008.
In an attempt to gain viewers, a new set and theme song were introduced in 2010. Ratings continued to decline, and in 2013 the show, which had typically been the number one Sunday news program, dropped to third place.
In 2014, Chuck Todd, NBC’s chief White House correspondent took over the reins of the show. The show never regained its former numbers, but its Facebook ratings have skyrocketed.
Some of the most-watched episodes included Elizabeth Bentley, a courier with a Community spy ring, in 1948; Fidel Castro in 1959; and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.
Every US president since JFK has appeared on the show, although most after their presidencies.
Todd, who is still running the show, shared some of his thoughts about why Meet the Press has been so influential. About the Sunday time slot, he said that “I think that the reason it has survived is because the idea of using Sunday as a day of reflection is sort of ingrained in the news business, too,” Todd said. “We continue to believe that Sunday mornings are when we’re going to sit down and try to figure out what the heck’s going on in the country.”
Todd also discussed Russert’s relevance on the show when he said, “Every moderator leaves an imprint. Tim has two giant imprints. He took Meet the Press to an hour. And he made the round table a vital and regular part of the show. Tim also made it seem less like an insider show. He realized it was at its best when explaining Washington to America but also bringing America to Washington.”
It’s hard to fault the show too much for its decline in ratings. When you consider, how many news choices there currently are, I think it is amazing that any news show has been able to remain on the air for almost 75 years.
The combination of Trump as president and the Covid pandemic has helped the show’s ratings a bit. In March of 2020 Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared on the show. According to Nielsen data, 4.657 million views tuned in making the show the most-watched one on that day. An additional 952,000 people watched rebroadcasts on NBC and MSNBC, the highest-rated show since January 2009.
It will be interesting to learn what celebrations are planned for 2022. If you have not checked in to see what Meet the Press is all about, take a listen this month.