Monday, June 16, 2008

Replacing the Pope

NBC Universal has one of the hardest balancing acts to accomplish in a very short time: how do you replace Washington bureau chief and "Meet The Press" host Tim Russert, who died on Friday of a sudden heart attack, heading into the Presidential elections without offending the public and his colleagues?

The New York Times devoted two articles today to the topic: columnist David Carr opining how "Tom Brokaw and others referred to him variously as a priest, a cardinal and even, in the words of his friend Mike Barnicle, a pope." The other piece ponders who replaces a "man of many roles." NBCU president Jeff Zucker says all the right things: "Anybody who thinks they can replace Tim Russert is kidding themselves."

Russert's loyal TV audience is still in shock and mourning. However, by week's end, it will be time to move on and choices will have to be made and announced. Newsday's Verne Gay is already calling for Tom Brokaw to host "Meet The Press."

Replacing an icon is one of the public relations world's most difficult tasks. You are suddenly faced with replacing somebody who is so ingrained in people's minds and hearts, it's more than inserting an implant where a missing tooth used to be. From a public point of view, you have to give them grieving time, understanding and sympathy while somehow finding a way to lead them onwards towards the future. When John Ritter suddenly passed away while shooting his ABC-TV series, the mourning period didn't stop the show but altered the plot. The revised show, which turned its theme into getting past a loved one's death, staggered on for another season before ending.

However, there is no time to stop and change the plot for Russert's role -- the election campaign process still steamrolls along towards November. With NBCU handling the situation deftly so far, the best way to make a favorable public impression is to take Gay's suggestion and at least put Brokaw in the "Meet The Press" seat. Unlike other company stars like Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough, who pack a lot of political heat and are more of "dividers" than "uniters," Brokaw is the folksy midwestern familiar guy that middle America can move ahead with. He is a proven commodity who will not rock the boat and that will allow Russert's audience to heal and be comforted.

Running the NBC-TV Washington bureau is a behind the scenes gig that merely will take a very well qualified person to do, not necessarily a televised personality.

Whoever the face is that NBCU puts in to replace Russert after his funeral, they will have to be a friend and trusted for the public to not feel betrayed.

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