Weigel, Will.i.am, and What’s Wrong with the Sunday Shows

A few days ago, Chris retweeted an article by Slate’s Dave Weigel entitled “Will.i.am Is Not What’s Wrong With Meet the Press,” in which Weigel recounts a jarring experience he had last Sunday:

On Sunday afternoon, I found myself among the not-insignificant number of Americans confused to see [The Black Eyed Peas’] Will.i.am on Meet the Press. Armed with an iPhone 4, I took this photo of the proceedings.

[Photo of Will.i.am with a serious expression]

Within a few hours, hundreds of people had shared that twitpic, usually with an aside about how much it revealed about Meet the Press’s well-reported troubles. Only a week had passed since Paul Farhi profiled the show and host David Gregory, which ironically shifted the narrative from ‘why is MTP so lame now?’ to ‘whoa, NBC hired a “psychological consultant” to find out how to maximize Gregory’s reach?’

I too was among the “not-insignificant number of Americans” taken aback by this state of affairs. I usually watch ABC’s This Week on Sunday mornings and hadn’t tuned in to Meet the Press in quite some time, so seeing Will.i.am’s mug immediately upon switching to NBC was perplexing indeed.

Evidently MTP has been experimenting with “adding on layers” and attempting to make the program more “interesting” by hosting “big conversations about religion, foreign events and societal trends,” as Gregory put it in an interview with Politico’s Dylan Byers. But Weigel is skeptical that this is really what the Sunday shows need:

Look, I’m a shmuck with a podcast and Gregory is a well-traveled reporter who’s interviewed basically everyone, but I feel this gets at exactly the wrong definition of ‘interesting.’ More interviews, more voices, does not automatically lead to more ‘interesting’ content. It leads to more content in less time—and less exploration of each subject covered. It robs the Sunday shows of their old advantage, their ability to lock subjects in a well-lit room for most of an hour and boil away their talking points.

As the ‘pack a show with segments!’ standard has spread, marquee guests have gotten used to quick sprint interviews that they can ace with some pablum. The main reason that Chris Christie’s post-election Sunday show interviews in 2013 were so lame and unrevealing was that Christie asked for, and received, only seven minutes on each show. But it didn’t jar, because each show was able to toss the segment into their current formats, in which tedious panel discussions fill out the hours like corn meal fills out a brick of scrapple. How did this happen? Who, in the history of ever, has wanted to hear less from the people who run the country and more from Harold Ford?

All I’m saying is: Lay off Will.i.am. He’s not the problem here. What you want is longer and more probing interviews with more seemingly boring people.

I completely agree with the first part of this diagnosis, since I’ve often complained about This Week’s own trend toward offering up “more content in less time.” The show used to consist of a roughly half-hour interview followed by a half-hour roundtable discussion, but is now typically made up of an interview (or two), a roundtable (or two), a “Sunday Spotlight” human interest story, and even a game of historical trivia with the roundtable participants (in an homage to Mother’s Day, today’s asked for the identity of the first woman to give birth in the White House).

“Boiling away the talking points” is a worthwhile objective, and I sympathize with Weigel’s frustration at Sunday show hosts who are too willing to let their guests get away with dodging questions. But Weigel elides his criticism of the “’pack the show with segments’ standard” with shots at “tedious panel discussions,” even though these are really two distinct problems. As he sees it, the issue is not that the proliferation of segments leads to less time spent on any given subject, but rather that it specifically leaves less time for in-depth interviews with politicians. This is the sense in which “the problem is not Will.i.am”; Meet the Press has, according to Weigel, already veered from its traditional mission.

I’m not so sure this is right. If anything, the total amount of time allocated to roundtable discussion on This Week actually appears to have decreased as the number of segments has multiplied. Weigel seems to forget that even in the good old days when Tim Russert hosted MTP, half of the show still (or already) was comprised of roundtable discussion – and even sometimes featured Harold Ford, Jr. Some of the most venerable political talk shows are, and have been for years, nothing but roundtable discussion. A few, like Gwen Ifill’s Washington Week on PBS, are marked by civility and generally productive conversation. Others, like CBS’ McLaughlin Group, frequently degenerate into shouting and feature Pat Buchanan saying things. It’s a mixed bag, but the format itself is nothing new.

“Tedious panel discussions” do have a role to play in the world of public affairs programming. Sure, it takes hard work to find worthwhile commentators who will offer a wide range of perspectives while engaging one another in a constructive way, but roundtables are not inherently a waste of time. Weigel thinks that any time spent talking about politicians is necessarily time not spent talking to politicians, but having journalists or other experts who can synthesize information and interpret the goings-on in Washington is a key part of keeping viewers informed. It should not be reflexively denigrated.

My own preference would be to see the Sunday shows return to the two-segment model, but also to see them limit the conversation within each segment to just one or two topics. Weigel mentions an episode of MTP where Gregory spent a brief few minutes with Texas Gov. Rick Perry hopping from issue to issue without ever getting a substantive response about any of them. Each segment of one of these shows has, in microcosm, fallen victim to the same ailment that afflicts the shows as a whole. Producers may feel as if they need to acknowledge every single political development of the preceding week, even if only by having each guest or discussant offer a thirty-second comment, but it would be a welcome development if they transformed their programs into something more along the lines of PBS’ Charlie Rose, where an entire hour is spent exploring a single topic in as much depth as possible.

Unfortunately, this might result in fewer employment opportunities for the psychological consultants and the Will.i.am’s of the world, but I’m sure they’ll manage. Maybe they can follow in Weigel’s footsteps and become shmucks with podcasts, too.

 

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