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Changing of the Guard

As McLaughlin's stock sinks, Matthews' rises 6/27/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

It may be the father of the raucous political free-for-alls, but The McLaughlin Group
is in trouble. First, it lost its best time period: 10 a.m. Sunday on NBC flagship WNBC New York. Second, its ratings sank. In May, the show dropped to second place behind CBS News Sunday Morning. At its peak in New York, the show commanded 750,000 viewers. Now it averages 321,000. The latest indignity: Host John McLaughlin will lose his New York time slot to his protégé, Chris Matthews.

Why? The internal view at NBC is that Matthews, 57, a former panelist on McLaughlin, is a rising star. He's a workhorse who writes bestsellers, hosts Hardball, and provides political-campaign analysis for NBC News. Plus, he anchors The Chris Matthews Show, a kinder, gentler version of his nightly brawl.

WNBC President and General Manager Frank Comerford says Matthews' upgrade is just good business. When Matthews
is paired as the lead-in to Meet the Press,
ratings improve for both shows.
"This isn't a negative for McLaughlin," he insists, noting that McLaughlin
will get Matthews'
old time period at 11:30 a.m.

The Chris Matthews Show
is sold by NBC's in-house syndication unit. Sean O'Boyle, senior vice president and national syndication sales manager, says the upgrade in New York "should give Chris a nice bump in the ratings." More viewers tend to tune in at the top of the hour than at the half-hour. "We just think it's Chris's time. He's hot."

And 77-year-old McLaughlin has cooled. Losing
that decade-long time period is a big blow—and just the latest in a series of setbacks. The show hasn't aged well, and McLaughlin has almost become a parody of himself.

In contrast, Matthews has toned down his hyper hardball style on Sunday and added lively faces to the mix. Last year, McLaughlin
lost its longtime sponsor, NBC parent General Electric, which had funded it for 16 years. GE Chairman and CEO Jack Welch, a McLaughlin friend and supporter, retired and was replaced by Jeff Immelt.

"Immelt has to distinguish himself from Jack. More importantly, Jack was interested in public affairs, the New York investor community, and the Washington political community," McLaughlin says. "He bought me because he got eyeballs" in both influential circles.

Welch "loved the show and was committed to public-policy programming," he adds. "We did a lot for him, and he produced great corporate-image advertising" that appeared on McLaughlin
over the years.

Under Immelt, however, GE has virtually abandoned sponsorship of the Sunday-morning public-affairs programs (with the exception of Meet the Press). During Welch's tenure, GE devoted a sizable portion of its ad budget to such fare, trying to polish its image with the investor community and federal regulators. But in 2002, Immelt brought in a new vice president of advertising. Judy Hu revamped the company's ad strategy, targeting a younger audience through prime time and debuting print and Internet ad campaigns.

What Welch was to McLaughlin, Immelt is to Matthews.

In fact, Matthews credits Immelt with suggesting the format for The Chris Matthews Show. "Immelt said to me two years ago, 'Why don't you use 15 people and have them rotate as guest commentators on the show?' " Matthews recalls. "Here's the head of GE, who has no hands-on involvement with the show, and he had the right idea."

By design, Matthews' Sunday-morning segment is more subdued than his nightly MSNBC program, Hardball, where he confronts Washington power players. Matthews listens closely when he's quizzing the journalists who appear as guests. "I want to know what they think," he says. "I don't have the same attitude toward the advocates" that appear on Hardball. "When you come on Hardball, you have to defend, like a thesis."

But Matthews's eclectic style wasn't McLaughlin's only problem. The GE-McLaughlin tie was loosening even before Welch left.

In 2001, the show was pulled from KNBC Los Angeles, where it aired Saturday evening. PBS station KCET picked it up, but the switch cut McLaughlin's Saturday-evening audience by about 70%, to an average 66,000 viewers. McLaughlin
business manager George Karalekas says GE lost interest in doing image advertising in Los Angeles.

With the exception of WNBC and co-owned WRC Washington, McLaughlin
is a PBS mainstay. The remaining 90% of its distribution is through PBS. The show can be seen on 315 stations nationwide.

With GE support gone, Karalekas and McLaughlin have attracted smaller sponsors, including Verizon, CIT, Pfizer, and Lincoln-Mercury. They buy ads on WNBC and WRC and receive underwriter credits on PBS. McLaughlin owns and produces the program. Karalekas says it is profitable but declines to provide details.

Still, for baby boomers, McLaughlin
is a cultural icon.

In the early 1990s, it was the hot show. It became such a Sunday-morning staple that it was a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live, with Dana Carvey playing the host. McLaughlin even went on the comedy show to play himself. By that time, his program had inspired a genre: Crossfire, Evans and Novak—Robert Novak was an early McLaughlin
participant—and Capital Gang
on CNN. Later, there was Hardball
and, more recently on Fox, The Beltway Boys, featuring ex-McLaughlin
regulars Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke.

Of his early TV mentor, Matthews says, "I love the guy. He's a tough customer, but I understand him." Both McLaughlin and Matthews were educated in the Roman Catholic Jesuit tradition. McLaughlin was an ordained priest (although he left the priesthood to marry) and was attracted to politics at an early age. He ran for the U.S. Senate in Rhode Island as a Republican in 1970 but lost. Then he signed on as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, working closely with Pat Buchanan, who has been a panelist on McLaughlin
from its inception.

Matthews was educated at Holy Cross, a Jesuit college in Worcester, Mass. He went on to become a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and then a top aide to Rep. Tip O'Neill Jr. He also served as Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner
before segueing into TV full time.

Jesuits tend to be strict disciplinarians, says Matthews, which is the way McLaughlin runs his show. "It's basically burlesque on the imperious manner of an absolute autocrat."

McLaughlin remembers Matthews as a "great panelist. He goes into this mental frenzy and becomes so excited he can barely keep up with the level of his brain feed." Is he a good host? "That's a tough call," says McLaughlin, adding, "I think Chris is performing a public service."

He's also holding his own.

After two years on air, The Chris Matthews Show
is competitive with most Sunday-morning public-affairs programs. NBC's Meet the Press
remains the leader with 4.4 million viewers. Face the Nation
and Matthews
are in a virtual tie for third for the season at about 2.7 million viewers each. ABC's This Week
attracts 2.5 million. McLaughlin weighs in with 2.4 million. Fox News Sunday
averages about 1.6 million viewers.

Despite the recent setbacks, McLaughlin isn't deterred. He's willing his show forward. "My health is strong, the ratings are strong, and we live in interesting times," he says. "I don't know how I could give it up."

Ultimately, he may not have a choice.

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