Saturday, November 6, 1947…’Meet The Press’ Debuts, NBC
As you’ll see in this and the next post, two of television’s longest running programs debuted this week in history, but they are separated by seven years and a day with ‘Face The Nation’ on CBS debuting on November 7, 1954.
Before the show history, a note on the photos. The one with no cameras is the oldest known photo and is from December 4, 1947 with guest Sen. Robert Taft. The other photos are just as historic as they are of the first ever colorcast of the show and were taken February 14, 1954 at The Colonial Theater in NYC with Sen. John F. Kennedy as the guest. Usually, the show was done at NBC’s WRC in Washington, but came to New York for the special colorcast with the RCA TK40 prototype cameras.
Did you know ‘Meet The Press’ was actually created and started by a woman? Her name was Martha Rountree and she started as a reporter at The Tampa Tribune. Her duties included writing a sports column under the name “M. J. Rountree,” its readers none the wiser as to the sex of the journalist who was, after all, writing in a field dominated by men. A local CBS station was impressed enough by her work that they gave her a chance to write for radio for the first time, after which she headed north to New York, where she wrote ad copy for the medium. But Rountree was not comfortable playing so minor a part of an industry she felt held greater opportunities for her. “I got the ideas, worked them out; other people got the credit,” she lamented. “I wanted to produce myself. To prove that she meant business, she and her sister Ann opened a production firm called Radio House, which prepared transcribed programs and singing commercials.
1945 was Rountree’s banner year. She made her mark on radio in a big way, selling the idea for two different panel shows to the Mutual Radio Network, premiering them a day apart in October. One was ‘Leave It to the Girls’, the other was ‘Meet The Press’ which debuted first on October 5, 1945.
Although frequently credited as a co creation of Rountree and Lawrence E. Spivak, publisher and editor of American Mercury magazine, authoritative sources adamantly state that it was Rountree who developed the premise on her own, with Spivak joining up as co producer and business partner in the enterprise after the show had already debuted. After she left, Spivak became the driving force behind the show.
On November 6, 1947, while still on Mutual Radio, the show came to NBC Television. ‘Meet the Press’ was originally presented on Saturday night at 7:30 as a half hour show with a single guest and a panel of questioners. The first guest was James Farley, who served as Postmaster General, Democratic National Committee chairman and campaign manager to Franklin Delano Roosevelt under the first two terms of the New Deal Administration.
The first host was its creator, Martha Rountree, the program’s only full time female moderator to date. She stepped down on November 1, 1953 and until Ned Brooks could take over, her friend Deena Clark filled in and is seen here in the Kennedy colorcast photos from February 14, 1954.
Rountree was succeeded by Ned Brooks, who remained as moderator until his retirement on December 26, 1965. Spivak became the moderator on January 1, 1966, moving up from his role as a permanent panelist. He retired on November 9, 1975, on a special one-hour edition that featured, for the first time, a sitting president, Gerald Ford, as the guest.
The next week, Bill Monroe, previously a weekly panelist like Spivak took over as moderator and stayed until June 2, 1984. For the next seven and a half years, the program then went through a series of hosts as it struggled in the ratings against ABC’s ‘This Week with David Brinkley’. Roger Mudd and Marvin Kalb (as co-moderators) followed Monroe for a year, followed by Chris Wallace from 1987 to 1988. Garrick Utley hosted ‘Meet the Press’ from 1989 through December 1, 1991 at which time Tim Russert took over and not long after that, the show went to a one hour format.
Rountree died on August 23, 1999, in Washington, where she had made her name as one of the key figures in political reporting. Her successor in the moderator’s seat, Tim Russert, summed up her status in the medium by declaring, “She was a news pioneer who helped create a national treasure, Meet the Press.” Enjoy and share! -Bobby Ellerbee