Margaret Brennan on Face the Nation’s New D.C. Set and the Show’s Potential Platform Expansion

By A.J. Katz 

We spoke with CBS Face the Nation moderator Margaret Brennan on Friday about the network’s new Washington, D.C. digs, and the new studio that will serve as home to both Face the Nation and the CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell.

Brennan loves the new set, which includes 17 video walls, covering more than 1,000-sq.-ft. of super high resolution 1.5mm LED video tiles.

“I just walked off a few minutes ago, and there are so many amazing features to it,” Brennan told TVNewser. “It’s our 65th anniversary as a show and it feels like we got a facelift. The sensibility of the program isn’t going to change, but it’s going to look very different to our viewers, in terms of all the bells and whistles. I move around the set a fair amount. We have so many live guests moving in and out and around, and it’s really kind of perfect for what we have to do every week.”

In addition to discussing the Washington bureau’s new home, which coincides with Evening News’ arrival in the nation’s capital, we asked Brennan about her upcoming two-year anniversary as Face the Nation moderator, the impact CBS News president Susan Zirinsky has had on her broadcast and if there’s a digital future in store for the legendary Sunday public affairs show.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes)

What did Face the Nation ask to have incorporated into the new studio that didn’t exist in the old one?

Brennan: The production team could probably speak a little bit in more detail on exactly what they were looking for, but I can tell you that we’ve got these huge video walls that cover like 1,000 square feet. All the different imagery you’ll see from pictures around Washington, DC should give viewers a sense of place. That’s something which will bring the viewer into the studio along with us. The floor itself underneath me is also an added element to the show. I’ve never had that before. I’ve broadcasted from a lot of different places around the world, and I’ve never had the ground beneath me be part of the production. That’s fun and interesting. It’s very modern and sleek. What I also like about the new set is that it’s not overwhelming. The DNA of our show has to remain the same. The focus is not the bells and whistles, but rather on the content and the perspective. At least in my judgment, it’s not going to be anything but additive.

You’re approaching two years as Face the Nation moderator. How has the program evolved?

It’s such a incredible time, news-wise. I still feel the responsibility of the moment and the responsibility of the broadcast, specifically to uphold the standards of it. I feel like we’ve just been drinking from the proverbial water hose of news, and now we’re at this peak moment of impeachment. Our country has only gone through an impeachment process four times in our history. Face the Nation’s been there for three of them, with this one being the third.

I think about how past moderators have dealt with those moments. It’s sobering and you feel the importance of trying to explain it in those terms, rather than just news story of the day. This is a moment in time we need to be having a serious conversation as a country about what’s happening, and the decisions being made by our leaders. I feel that responsibility even more.

In terms of the evolution of the show, it has looked different more than a few times.  When I stepped into a moderator position, we were transitioning from an entirely different building next door that doesn’t even exist anymore. Now, we’ve moved into this building which is so nice and new and modern. Before that, we were temporarily over [the law firm] Jones Day on their roof for a few months while they built this studio. There have been a few obstacle courses.

I can’t believe it’s almost two years, but we’ve tried to keep the DNA the same, and at a time when you can literally get an opinion anywhere and talk is incredibly cheap, we try to not be what you see everywhere else. We try to really bring that context every week. I’ve really been serious in trying to do that.

I’ve also had a baby in between all this, so my life has looked a lot different.

[CBS News president] Susan Zirinsky shook up CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News earlier this year, not long after she was named CBS News president. However, your show hasn’t changed. What is your relationship with “Z” and what type of impact has she had on Face the Nation?

Well, this entire new studio, and this entire new look and feel is a product of Z’s vision for bringing literally the center of gravity back to Washington for the network. As a correspondent for a long time in the bureau and we used to joke that 60% of the news seems to be generated out of here in some ways. All the different beats cross through Washington, and I feel like that’s only ballooned since that time. I think Z recognized that.

For our show on Sundays, it is the exclamation point on the week. It is also the starting point for the week that you’re about to begin, and I think that’s has been recognized as well.

Mary Hager, our executive producer continues to be in the role be in for for many years now, working with Bob Schieffer and then with John Dickerson. I can’t speak for Z, but she, in all of our conversations, understands so well that what Lesley Stahl did and Bob Schieffer did and John Dickerson did has got to be carried through now in this moment. At this time, it’s more important than ever to give the proper digestion of the week.

The ViacomCBS merger closed earlier this week. Do you see anything changing on your end? Do you see Face the Nation or CBS News leveraging the new properties in any way?

I have not thought about that yet, but I’ll be excited if it does. I’m not aware of how it changes anything, other than I know that the network continues to stand behind the program. I’m looking at the ViacomCBS notebook on my desk! But that’s that’s about it.

Can you see yourself expanding the Face the Nation franchise, perhaps on the digital front? Maybe a Face the Nation podcast?

I want that. I would love a podcast. I would love to expand more on digital. CBSN is our entity there. Face The Nation does rebroadcast there. I do a cross talk after our broadcast ends on Sunday to pick out the newsiest bites and bits of what we learned in the course of the hour that we had just done on the broadcast, and break that down. Usually it’s with Elaine Quijano, sometimes it’s another digital anchor. We have some presence, but we’re trying to build that out, trying to figure out how to best do it.

A lot of this is food for thought for the new year, because you don’t want to lose that DNA of the show. It’s so easy to get into the hot take on Twitter, and to be able to do it in a way that gives the proper level of context and respect.

We do lengthy interviews and that is rare these days. In television to have a really extended conversation with somebody in the cabinet; or a world leader; or the president himself. You get it in a number of [Twitter] characters these days, but you don’t always get it in the extended interview. Figuring out how to bring those two worlds together is something I’d like to do. I’ve got to figure out how to do it, and I think the team here is thinking about how to do it best.

I would also love to bring some of the great history of this program—which humbles me all the time—forward more too, and remind people of those moments.  Looking back through the archives, as we’ve done in the past 65 years and watching Martin Luther King get interviewed on Face the Nation. Fidel Castro, too. I’d love to bring that through so it was more accessible to people.

If you’ve got ideas, I’m looking! It’s a matter of bandwidth, it’s not a matter of limitation of desire these days. We’re a little busy in the news cycle.

Photo cred: Chris Usher

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