Gotcha, 24/7

Times Staff Writer

When THE political parties hold their national conventions in coming weeks, network anchors Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Katie Couric will have an hourlong special each evening to report on the gatherings. Chuck Todd will have 20 hours a day.

Todd, NBC News political director, will deliver analysis on MSNBC from dawn until late at night, squeezing in appearances on the broadcast network. If anyone symbolizes the way the cable news networks have sought to dominate coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, it's Todd, who has emerged as one of MSNBC's most important players in this memorable political season.

A 36-year-old goateed number cruncher who was barely known outside the Beltway a year ago, Todd now has fans who call themselves “Chuckolytes” and a growing profile in the news division, as an almost old-fashioned straight shooter among his highly opinionated colleagues and the shouting heads that dominate cable.

He's getting a major platform at the conventions, starting with the Democrats in Denver on Aug. 25. For the first time, Todd will be sitting behind the anchor desk, helming an hour of the cable coverage every day. It's a role that invariably will be viewed as an audition for an even larger post -- succeeding the late Tim Russert on NBC's Sunday program “Meet the Press.”

The fact that Todd is in the running for arguably the most influential political job in television speaks to the unexpected rise of the young analyst, who joined NBC last year from the online political newsletter the Hotline to take what historically had been a behind-the-scenes position. It's a career arc similar to that of Russert, who joined NBC as an executive, not expecting to go on the air.

Todd's expanding role underscores how the cable news networks are beefing up their coverage to take advantage of the huge interest in this year's presidential campaigns, during which historic firsts in an extended primary season captivated a record number of viewers. With a general election already generating daily clashes between the campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, they're counting on the drama to continue.

The political conventions may be set pieces that typically generate little news, but they function as key opportunities to grab the attention of media-saturated viewers following every development of the race on YouTube and blogs. To compete in this arena, the networks are not only stocking up on big-name pundits -- Fox News signed Karl Rove and NBC nabbed former McCain advisor Mike Murphy -- but are increasingly turning to neutral political authorities to bolster their coverage.

Steady as he goes

Todd IS now one of MSNBC's most visible faces, the dispenser of plain-spoken yet keen political insights. (On a recent edition of "Hardball," he explained that "the Obama camp doesn't want to seem as if they're trying to shove the Clintons out of the way, that they're trying to do like the old Soviet Union and destroy all the statues.") A day rarely passes when he's not on the air, confidently breaking down electoral math for the channel's jostling personalities.

"There was no expectation that this guy was going to be a TV guy," said MSNBC President Phil Griffin. "But he's got the magic."

It's not just because of his comprehensive knowledge of the political map, which colleagues frequently refer to as "encyclopedic." "Others who are in the space tend to draw more attention to themselves than Chuck does," said NBC News President Steve Capus. "He's not out there showboating."

the HotlineTodd, a matter-of-fact father of two, is not sure what to make of his sudden prominence and worries about being overexposed. "I'm really trying to make sure I never go on the air when I have nothing to talk about," he said. "I want to make sure that the people who do pay attention to what I say, they feel like they learn something every time."

But MSNBC's appetite -- like that of its competitors -- has been voracious. While the broadcast networks have devoted about 31% of their news airtime to the 2008 campaign this year, cable networks have spent about 62% of their time focused on the race, according to a news index compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The lopsided coverage has shaped the narrative of the race, with an emphasis on the kind of tactical and contentious stories that cable feeds on. Inflammatory comments made by Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., for example, aired almost ceaselessly until the candidate addressed them.

"This campaign coverage has really bounced from controversy to controversy -- gaffe pingpong," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the excellence project. "And that is very much how cable tends to operate."

Top-rated Fox News has averaged 1.66 million viewers in weekday prime time this year, up 14% over last year, while CNN has spiked up 40% to 1.06 million and MSNBC has boosted its viewership by 41% to 713,000, according to Nielsen Media Research.

With the broadcast networks doing limited coverage of the conventions, the cable channels see an opening to dominate these events and position themselves as a destination for political news throughout the fall. They hope to expand on a trend that began in 2004, when Fox News got higher ratings for its coverage of the GOP convention than the broadcasters.

"Cable really has replaced broadcast for convention coverage and real political debate and discussion," said David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief.

All three networks will be jockeying furiously for viewers in the coming weeks: Fox News with its political eminence grise, Brit Hume, helming its prime-time programming; CNN with its pundit-packed "Election Center" set; and MSNBC with its colorful anchor team of Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, who unapologetically slide between news and opinion.

Fox News plans to broadcast live from the Denver and St. Paul conventions nearly full time, with uninterrupted coverage beginning at noon PDT each day with anchor Shepard Smith, followed by a lineup of hosts such as Bill O'Reilly and Neil Cavuto.

CNN will also turn most of its programming over to the gatherings. Anchors Wolf Blitzer, Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper will be perched on sets built right on the floor of the halls, joined by chief national correspondent John King and a scaled-down version of the "magic wall," a touch-screen panel that allows him to immediately pull up delegate breakdowns.

The 'swagger' factor

MSNBC HAS been perhaps the most aggressive about positioning itself as the network for political junkies. Long the cable news laggard, the channel has seen its fortunes rise as the 2008 race gained steam, in large part because of Olbermann's barn-raising tirades against President Bush. Executives are intent on making a mark at the conventions. "We're going all out, 20 hours live all day," Griffin said. "For the first time, we've got some swagger."

As political director, Todd will have his hands full. He not only oversees all the political coverage on NBC and MSNBC but is the main point person for the campaigns. ("I get complaint calls every hour," he said.) Since Russert died in June, he's also served as the networks' main on-air political analyst, winning over viewers with his even-keel manner.

Fan websites have sprung up, including Viva Chuck Todd, dubbed "an online salute to the smartest guy on television who makes sense of the senseless."

San Diego resident Paul Chamberlain started the blog after noticing Todd on MSNBC. "I'm watching Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, who are entertainers who have become caricatures of themselves, and all of a sudden there was this calm that would come on," said Chamberlain, chief creative officer of a card company. "He's kind of this humble wunderkind."

Todd's burgeoning fame has not gone unnoticed inside NBC News, where colleagues refer to him as Chucky T. On a recent afternoon, Chief White House Correspondent David Gregory encountered Todd entering NBC's Washington bureau with a reporter.

"What, not another one about you?" Gregory asked in amazement.

The political director shrugged sheepishly.

Less than an hour later, Todd sat in a third-floor studio for his only practice run anchoring on MSNBC before the conventions. It was his first time behind the desk, and he anxiously checked with the floor director throughout the hour to make sure he was getting his cues right. "This is big-boy TV now," he said.

The Miami native wasn't looking for a television career when he first arrived in this city as a student at George Washington University, already fascinated with politics. "I thought I wanted to manage a presidential campaign," he said. But after working on a few races, including Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's 1992 presidential bid, he decided "it was more interesting to do it as a sport than trying to be a hired gun."

He landed an internship at the Hotline, where he was immediately drafted to cover House races, learning what he calls "the crime beat of politics." Todd ultimately served for six years as editor in chief of the publication, a daily compendium of political news that's a must-read in Washington, before Russert tapped him to join NBC.

When this year's Democratic primary got bogged down in questions about delegate math, Todd suddenly found his detailed knowledge in demand. "It's so refreshing and a little spooky to hear the same compliments about him that I last heard about my partner Tim," Williams said. "He can take a congressional district and make it a friendly place for viewers who may not have a copy of the Almanac of American Politics handy."

NBC News' Capus draws a similar comparison between Todd and Russert, adding, "Chuck Todd is a guy who we have big plans for." That could mean a post on the network's venerable Sunday talk show, a program temporarily being moderated by Tom Brokaw, who calls Todd "a first violinist."

"Chuck may very well fit into our future plans for 'Meet the Press,' " said Capus, adding that he has not yet decided who should helm the program after the election.

When asked about the prospect of succeeding Russert, a mentor, Todd was uncharacteristically tongue-tied. "On the one hand, I feel, like I can't believe I'm being mentioned," he finally said. "On the other hand, you're like, even if I'm not picked, if I don't ever do it, it's cool enough to say to my grandkids someday, 'I had an at-bat at the major leagues.' "

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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