The Russert Chair

“He’s got great instincts when it comes to what area of stories to probe,” said Mr. Oppenheim. “I don’t think

“He’s got great instincts when it comes to what area of stories to probe,” said Mr. Oppenheim. “I don’t think there’s much of a learning curve when it comes to politics. He knows that world as well as anyone. He gets great stuff out of people.”

“He brings great star power,” said a person familiar with the inner workings of NBC News. “He acts like a star and can be one. He’s certainly got the ego for it. He can be an aggressive questioner—as he showed in the White House Press Room. He was a dramatic and good and persistent questioner. And he’s not afraid to be disliked.”

“The trick that Russert pulled off, however, was to make it all about Russert and yet not to seem to be about Russert at all,” added our source. “That’s why people liked him and viewed him as a good inquisitor. The question is whether this guy can pull off the same trick.”

To date, Mr. Gregory has already hosted multiple shows on MSNBC, neither of which succeeded (à la Rachel Maddow) in developing much of a cult personal following for Mr. Gregory. As a result, many casual observers might wonder in the days to come why NBC might choose the guy with the worst ratings in their cable channel’s prime-time lineup for the most prestigious job in political television. But the truth is that while Mr. Gregory has not attracted much love during his stints on cable, nor has he stirred up much trouble. In the cable universe, not causing controversy is a death sentence. In the world of Sunday morning public-affairs programming, it’s a trait that has great appeal to network executives.

Back on Aug. 17, Mr. Gregory got a solo flight moderating Meet the Press. Along the way, he interviewed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; moderated a square-off between two candidate surrogates, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal; and presided over a political round table featuring Josh Green, Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd. Overall, the show went smoothly—if not remarkably. NBC won the ratings battle for the weekend with roughly 3.2 million total viewers (CBS’s Face the Nation had 2.5 million and ABC’s This Week had 2.4 million).

“This is the definitely the safest choice,” said one network staffer. “He’s a smart guy with the political chops. The question is going to be, can he maintain the audience? The most important thing will be making sure that Meet the Press continues to dominate when it comes to guests.”

And Mr. Gregory certainly has the will to dominate. Every year, Television critic Andrew Tyndall tallies up the time spent in front of the camera by all correspondents on the evening newscasts at CBS, NBC and ABC. In recent years, in a profession teeming with insatiable camera hogs, Mr. Gregory has dominated. In each of the past four years, Mr. Gregory has finished as either the single most heavily used reporter in network news or the second most. Not to mention that he is a relentless substitute anchor. Over Thanksgiving weekend, for instance, he was everywhere viewers looked on NBC, filling in on both Today and the Nightly News. Even his critics concede that Mr. Gregory has an incredible motor.

Unsurprisingly, his omnipresence has done his reputation more good among viewers and network executives than among some of his colleagues and inferiors.

“I think it’s a tragedy,” said one of his colleagues, about Mr. Gregory’s apparent ascent to the Meet the Press position. “It’s depressing. It shows that your skills as an inside fighter matter more than your skills as a journalist.”

“The last supposedly safe decision a network executive made was giving the CBS Evening News to Katie Couric,” said one TV insider. “That was considered the safest possible move. And look how that worked out.”

In fact, NBC may be contemplating an even safer move. What if it were possible to keep David Gregory at NBC and still keep everyone happy who wanted this job?

The Russert Chair