In its third season, the 30-minute NBC News-produced Chris Matthews Show is holding its own among seasoned news rivals, such as NBC's Meet the Press, CBS' Face the Nation, and The McLaughlin Group, which airs on PBS in many markets.
Available in 99% of the country, Matthews is supported by Cisco Systems, Exxon and TD Waterhouse, blue-chip advertisers that rarely buy space on syndicated shows.
Most of the weekend show's competition focuses on newsmakers, generally competing for exclusives with key players in news events that make headlines in a particular week.
By contrast, Matthews pulls together a roundtable of journalists who give viewers political insight and behind-the-scenes color.
“We try to get people who know each other from the business together,” says executive producer Nancy Nathan. “The audience gets the sense they are part of the group.” And they are responding.
In the February sweeps, Matthews placed third with 25-54s among weekend current-affairs shows. It pulled an average of 1.08 million viewers in this key demo, behind 1.29 million for Meet the Press, 1.12 million for Face the Nation, 871,000 for ABC's This Week and 716,000 for Fox News Sunday.
Some of the credit for the show's success goes to Jeff Immelt, a Matthews fan who is also CEO of NBC corporate parent General Electric.
Immelt suggested using the roundtable format, encouraging the show's host to recruit a large team of commentators to rotate as guests.
Chris Matthews learned the formula as a frequent guest on McLaughlin Group. He now competes with his former mentor, although McLaughlin has a faster pace and more confrontational style.
By contrast, journalists sometimes share personal information on Matthews that would be inappropriate in a newscast or on Hardball, the host's daily MSNBC show.
For example, when the group discussed the Terri Schiavo case, Sam Donaldson described his ambivalence at taking his dying mother off life support.
“Chris likes to say it's sort of a brunch,” says Nathan. “We don't use people who are fire-eaters like on cable.”