NEW YORK — One of the ironies in this season of Trump is that the man who publicly mocked “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd for low ratings was responsible for Todd’s best ratings ever on the show.
NBC hopes that numbers for the recent Sunday where Todd interviewed Donald Trump from Iowa aren’t just an outlier. Todd has some momentum at his one-year anniversary at “Meet the Press,” reimagining a show that began in 1947 while preparing for a new weekday role at MSNBC.
First things first, though. Todd said nothing to Trump about the rough Twitter treatment and, since the Republican presidential front-runner came on his show, the candidate didn’t hold a grudge.
Earlier in the year, Trump dubbed Todd “sleepy eyes” and tweeted that he’s killing NBC in the ratings. “So many people have told me that I should host Meet the Press and replace the moron who is on now,” Trump tweeted.
It’s tough to do the job if you let this sort of thing get to you, Todd said. “Politicians have been attacking the press corps and members of the press corps since it all began. This guy is much more personal about it. I think what he wants is to get a rise.”
Clearly, though, Trump was wildly underestimated by the political class and Todd doesn’t exempt himself.
“We in the Acela corridor got caught up in, ‘Oh, my God, he’s not qualified. What are we doing?’ ” he said. “It’s not our job to decide who’s qualified. It’s the voters’ job.”
At first Todd worried that Trump’s success would trivialize the process, but now believes that anything that engages the public is good. Television ratings and opinion polls provide ample evidence that Trump has struck a chord.
After that slow start that Trump noticed, Todd’s ratings have shown some upward movement. In third place behind CBS’ “Face the Nation” and ABC’s “This Week” when Todd started, “Meet the Press” has edged ahead of ABC into second this year, the Nielsen company said. Each of the shows has grown its audience this summer compared to last year but “Meet the Press,” at 19 percent, has shown the most improvement since John Dickerson replaced Bob Schieffer at “Face the Nation” late last spring.
The Sunday political shows have long been dominated by lengthy interviews with Washington newsmakers, an approach the late Tim Russert turned into an art form at “Meet the Press.”
Todd began his new job with a burst of energy and a desire to try new things, some that worked and some that didn’t, said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who is now a professor at George Washington University. For instance, after introducing several new voices to the program, Todd seems to recognize that there’s value in some veteran expertise, he said.
But it’s clear he loves and lives for the work. “He is developing his voice,” Sesno said.
The effort to reach beyond Washington officialdom is a strength, said Jane Hall, a journalism professor at American University.
Todd takes pride in more out-of-the-box bookings, like basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talking about Islamophobia or football player Leonard Marshall addressing concussions in the NFL. California Gov. Jerry Brown, with two presidential campaigns behind him, offered insight into the current group of candidates, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio talked about progressive politics and former Secretary of State Colin Powell made news last week with his support of President Obama’s Iran deal.
The Powell interview ran long, but Todd often has a handful of different interviews that run much shorter than what Sunday viewers are accustomed to. Todd will direct viewers to the show’s website for an extended version of the talk. That partly serves to promote online involvement, but also acknowledges modern viewing habits, he said.
“Before I think the idea was, ‘the viewers are going to be there. They’re going to tolerate it,’ ” Todd said. “You really need to give them a first good 20 minutes and they’ll stick with you for the next 40. I don’t think you can assume that anymore.”
The show no longer fits a panel show model of all talk and little else. There are more reported stories, like on a more typical newscast. Todd believes he has fewer “Washington people” than his rivals.
“If they have a 10 percent approval rating, they’ve lost their credibility and people aren’t listening to them,” he said. “Our job is to cover the same topics and find people who are credible to the viewer.”
Todd, who gave up his weekday job as host of “The Daily Rundown” on MSNBC to concentrate on “Meet the Press,” will soon return to the cable network to host a daily news program at 5 p.m. ET. It’s part of MSNBC’s overall shift to more news and less opinion during daytime hours, and is expected to begin later this month.