NBC's "Meet the Press" and host Tim Russert marked a milestone this week: 260 consecutive weeks — five years — as the most popular Sunday morning public-affairs program.
(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
"It's an affirmation of the history of `Meet the Press,'" said Russert, who has anchored the 58-year-old program since 1991, on Monday.
It has generally been the most popular Sunday show since 1998. But the last day it was beaten (by ABC's "This Week" pre-George Stephanopoulos) was July 30, 2000. To give a fair comparison, NBC did not count weeks where one or more of the network Sunday shows were pre-empted in much of the country for other programming.
"Meet the Press" was seen by just over 4 million people this week, according to Nielsen Media Research. CBS' "Face the Nation" was second with 2.9 million, and ABC's "This Week" had 2.8 million. "Fox News Sunday" had 1.3 million, Nielsen said.
The winning streak is reminiscent of NBC's "Today" show streak, currently at 540 straight weeks (more than 10 years) and counting.
Russert rules Sunday morning with a style that wasn't always appreciated internally. Russert said when he started putting his guests' old quotes on the screen for them to react to — a "Meet the Press" signature — an NBC News executive who no longer works there told him it looked like "1950s television."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, promoting his new book, was the chief "Meet the Press" guest on Sunday.
Russert said he's been stymied lately in seeking appearances by some key officials, among them Vice President Cheney, who has been interviewed recently by Brit Hume on Fox News Channel and on ABC News' "Nightline." Also on Russert's current wish list is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has appeared recently on conservative talk radio, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"I don't believe you can make tough decisions unless you can answer tough questions," he said. "You can choose other forums, but if they are ones that are seen to be sympathetic, I don't think the interview or the presentation resonates the same way as if you are on `Meet the Press' and do a credible job."
Russert should have every opportunity to keep his streak going. He's in the midst of a 12-year contract with NBC News that runs through the election of 2012.
"My favorite ballplayers are the ones who played for the same team their whole life," he said. "I didn't have any interest in doing anything else at the network level — here or anywhere else. It's very seldom you find something that's a good fit. It's the closest I've had to a vocation, I guess."