Rough Morning: How TV’s A.M. News Shows Are Grappling With Trump and Technology

Robin Roberts needs to rely on more than just her journalism training to survive on “Good Morning America.”

ABC News keeps throwing new program configurations at her, so much so that Roberts says she draws upon her childhood experience, when her father had to move from job to job in the Air Force, to keep rolling with them. “I had to make new friends every three years,” she says. On camera at “GMA,” she’s done much the same.

When she joined the show as a co-anchor in 2005, Roberts worked with Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, then just Sawyer. Then she teamed with George Stephanopoulos and a broader “family” of news anchors in a configuration that helped the show surpass its main rival, NBC’s “Today,” in the ratings for the first time in 16 years. Now, “GMA” looks nothing like the program that snatched the viewership crown (it’s still TV’s most-watched morning program, though NBC has taken back the lead among key viewers). In 2020, Roberts is part of a trio — she opens the show with Stephanopoulos and Michael Strahan — and the second hour of “GMA” takes place before a live audience seated in a separate studio.

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In a different era, producers would try to maintain elements of the show for as long as possible to avoid upsetting longtime viewers. David Hartman launched “GMA” in 1975 and kept on as host into 1987. “There were very little if any format changes,” he recalls.

Sticking to last year’s formula is no longer a strategy for the future. TV’s business of dawn is breaking. Whether or not it can be fixed remains to be seen.

In recent years, the morning slot has experienced tremendous upheaval. Consider the dismissals of Matt Lauer from “Today” and Charlie Rose from “CBS This Morning.” Or ABC’s quick-turn move of Strahan to “GMA” from “Live” with Kelly Ripa. President Donald Trump’s intense attraction to “Fox & Friends” can create ripples in the news cycle; his feud with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” shocked the anchors as well as their audience.

Once a softer environment for news and interviews, morning television has become the most intense and competitive time of day for major TV news outlets, even though viewers are getting more news from smartphone screens and other new-tech venues. And as the pace of breaking news increases, the shows are turning more hard-boiled. In recent years, viewers have seen anchors conduct contentious newsmaker interviews, discuss shocking political maneuvers and even cover detailed sexual assault allegations against former colleagues.

Adding to the tension: Key viewers have defected from the a.m. offerings on ABC, NBC and CBS. Over a five-season period that ended with the 2018-19 cycle, the audience that news advertisers pay for most — people between 25 and 54 — fell almost 22% at “CBS This Morning,” 28% at “Today” and a little over 38% at “GMA,” according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, cable’s best-known morning programs — “Fox & Friends,” “Morning Joe” and “New Day” — have won viewers by aggressively focusing on a narrower political spectrum and breaking national news.

“It’s not your momma’s ‘Good Morning America,’” says Roberts one morning during a quick break on set while the cameras are off. “Nor should it be.” She is about to head upstairs at GMA’s Times Square facility in New York to work in front of the live crowd, who will soon come within arm’s reach of guests like Kate Beckinsale and an automated replica of “Star Wars” droid BB-8. When the broadcast ends, Roberts and “GMA” meteorologist Ginger Zee will stay to greet the show’s guests.

In sunrise visits to six of the nation’s most-watched a.m. programs, Variety found anchors taking on more roles as their networks extend into digital video and social media; producers working to beat their rivals in the traditional ratings, all the while hoping their networks monetize experimental ways of reaching viewers; and news personnel trying to figure out how to balance an increasing amount of hard news with the lighter tone that has been a hallmark of the time slot.

“We are shot out of a cannon now,” says Roberts, because viewers who once tuned to the morning shows for their first headlines have already gotten them somewhere else, increasing the pressure to find ways to stand out. “It’s become a more difficult landscape to keep track of all the developments and put them into context,” says Brzezinski of “Morning Joe.” “There’s actually not enough time in our three-hour show to do that.” Adds Ainsley Earhardt, co-anchor at “Fox & Friends,” “We don’t have those opportunities as much as we used to — to maybe throw in some of those fun segments — but you go with the flow, you go with the news cycle.”

“You no longer just plant your behind on a stool and do your show. Those days are over.”
Hoda Kotb, “Today”

To keep pace, many of the networks are eagerly tinkering with their a.m. mainstays. NBC News has in recent months retooled not only the flagship two hours of “Today” but all its other editions as well. CBS News has a new trio in place at “CBS This Morning.” CNN launched “New Day” in 2013 with an entirely different crew than helms it now. “Fox & Friends” brings live audiences into the studio once a month. During one such broadcast on Veterans Day, producers managed a military band and a street-side ceremony with officials from the federal government attending. (“It’s like 10 shows in one,” confides Gavin Hadden, Fox News’ vice president of morning programming.)

Michael Corn, senior executive broadcast producer for “GMA,” sees changes coming at breakneck speed. “Our world as media consumers is evolving at an incredible pace,” he says. “If you’re running a show like this, you have to learn to evolve just as fast.”

America’s six most-watched morning programs — “GMA,” “Today,” “CBS This Morning,” “Fox & Friends” “Morning Joe” and “New Day” — bring in almost $1 billion in ad dollars and millions of viewers every year. At broadcast networks, the shows typically carry the entire news division. “Today” is “the beating heart, financially, spiritually and editorially,” of NBC News, says Noah Oppenheim, the division’s president. “Yeah, it’s critical.”

The programs once thrived by becoming part of a family habit, passed from one generation to the next. Now each member of a clan can check out Twitter headlines, smartphone notifications or even email newsletters (former “Today” anchor Katie Couric has one that reads like the opening rundown from her onetime perch). And there are other options: New York’s WNBC offers early news at 4 a.m.

In some cases, the morning shows have had to wrestle with scandal. Both “Today” and “CBS This Morning” reworked themselves in the wake of Lauer and Rose being ousted after allegations were raised of sexual harassment (both men have denied some of the claims made against them). “Today” now features the only all-
female co-anchor team among the a.m. network shows, with Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, while “CBS This Morning” has won plaudits for Gayle King’s slate of exclusive interviews. She co-anchors the show with Anthony Mason and Tony Doukopil. The revamps sparked alarm. “I remember lamenting to [CBS News president] Susan Zirinsky when we had our stuff: ‘Oh God, now we have to start from scratch,’” recalls King, who says core viewers have stuck with the show.

Morning programs continue to hold the national interest. Apple bet millions of dollars on “The Morning Show,” a streaming-video drama that offers a not-so-veiled look at the inner workings of morning TV, particularly “Today.” Roberts can’t take a day off without people wondering where she’s gone.  At “Today,” Guthrie’s recent eye surgery – chronicled in great detail on various broadcasts in December and January – has sparked strong viewer reaction. “It’s on the mend. We have all lived through the eye saga,” says Guthrie. “It’s getting better.”

But the shows also command another gaze: the corporate one. During one Variety visit, Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch was spotted paying his respects near the “Fox & Friends” green room to that day’s guest, Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence. NBC News’ Oppenheim is a regular presence on set and in the control room at “Today.” During one recent “CBS This Morning” broadcast, Zirinsky dashed on set the moment the show closed to tell the anchors the network had set the first TV interview with presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg since he announced his candidacy. When NBC News wanted to make the “Today” studio accessible to passers-by at its home in New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1994, the network had to run the plan by Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of General Electric, then NBC’s corporate parent.

That scrutiny has only intensified as broadcast TV grapples with ratings declines in many parts of its schedule. “The erosion of viewership is something we have been fighting for a long time,” says Carson Daly, who holds forth on “Today” even as he hosts and produces NBC’s ’The Voice,” That show, he says, “has seen a drop off and what it led us to do is find other ways to meet your audience.”

Little wonder, then, that the morning’s collective voice has changed significantly. “At a different moment in time, these shows were comfort food. It was a nice way to start your day and ease into things. You’d see some stars, hear about some movies coming out, listen to a new recipe,” says Scott Carlin, executive vice president of global media and entertainment at Magid, a TV-industry consultant. “Now it’s like jumping on the treadmill at 80 miles per hour, and there’s no warmup.”

The rule of morning news had long been to offer viewers the equivalent of a soothing cup of coffee. These days, the shows often serve up a shot of much harder stuff.

In the Trump era, that makes for moments that a different generation of morning audience might never have thought they’d see on TV. During one recent broadcast of “Morning Joe,” for example, Scarborough told viewers that White House adviser Stephen Miller, whose controversial remarks in preelection emails to the conservative news site Breitbart had leaked, was “revealed as a white nationalist or as a champion of white nationalism.” No matter what one’s politics, that’s tough stuff to hear over coffee and cereal or while the kids play next to the couch.

And yet, viewers flock to these cable programs. Some pass along clips of the knock-down, drag-outs between Trump supporters and the “New Day” anchors on CNN (the network has on occasion cut its commercials so the back-and-forth can continue without interruption). Others enjoy hearing MSNBC’s Scarborough and Brzezinski warn about behavior coming out of the White House. And some thrill to see members of the Trump administration showing up on “Fox & Friends.”

“What we have noticed is that when we do segments that are louder, at a hotter temperature —it kind of works.”
Steve Doocy, “Fox & Friends”

The anchors on those networks are fierce rivals, but on this point they agree: Audiences like what they see. While the shows draw fewer viewers than their broadcast rivals, ratings have been on the rise. Between the 2014-15 and the 2018-19 TV seasons, the 25-to-54 audience has soared 25% for “Fox & Friends,” 28% for CNN’s “New Day” and a whopping 113% for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“I always thought that it was a tender time of the day. You’re just waking up. You want it nice and easy,” says Steve Doocy, who launched “Fox & Friends” in 1998 and has worked at other morning programs. “But what we have noticed is that when we do segments that are louder, at a hotter temperature — you know what? It kind of works.”

Indeed, those discussions are part of the cable shows’ appeal. “I think people are tuning in to us to see people held to account. People do like it when we hold their feet to the fire,” says Alisyn Camerota of “New Day.” “Sometimes, we have to interrupt people if they are blathering on with their talking points, but even then, our viewers expect us to get in there and stop the nonsense. I don’t wrestle with it.”

The broadcast shows still boast celebrity interviews and cooking segments, but they’ve also changed with the times. “CBS This Morning” injected a newsier focus on the proceedings when it launched in 2012. “Our competitors will say [to me] I really like what you guys are doing,” says King. “They shall remain nameless, but they are well known.” In 2015, NBC eliminated the longtime news reader position on “Today” and pushed fluffier stories into the second hour. That let the anchors at 7 a.m. lean into a tighter focus on hard news, says Oppenheim. “GMA” recently reworked its starting moments with a “cold open” on Roberts, Stephanopoulos and Strahan at the desk, pushing the usual voiceovers and video montages until after the trio kicks off the show.

Now, even some of the cable hosts have begun to wring their hands over how tough a stance to take each day. “Mika and I for the first time had to talk to each other before we went on the show and basically say, ‘Let’s keep it down to a simmer,’” says Scarborough. “We can’t say the world is coming to an end every day. We can’t predict that locusts are going to descend from the heavens every day and tear the flesh off everyone in Washington every day.” He credits co-anchor Willie Geist for keeping discussions calmer, and notes his team tries to use sports scores and other conversations about culture to cool things down. Over at CNN, co-anchors Camerota and John Berman disagree about the use of profanity on air. She won’t utter an off-color phrase; he thinks giving viewers the actual words newsmakers use is important. “I think our audience is there,” he says. “I’ve covered war and stuff over the years, and I’ve never felt you should explore blood and guts and violence,” but “if that were to become the world on our show, I absolutely would feel strongly that we show the reality.”

One of the broadcast hosts thinks chaotic conversation puts the shows in an untenable position. “It’s very tricky. There is that element of the audience that wants you to go after whoever that political figure is, and when you don’t, they let you know. And then there is another element that doesn’t want the fight because it becomes noise they can’t decipher, and they let you know, too,” says CBS’ Mason. “You’re going to lose, almost whatever you do.”

The cable shows face questions as well. How many more people can they draw as news junkies increasingly look at the notifications on their smartphone screens? And if President Trump should leave office, will his successor generate half as many crisis moments? None of that will keep them from trying to siphon more viewers. “Unless we have all the audience, I don’t think we have risen as far as we can go,” says Fox News’ Hadden.

Despite the present day’s many on-screen clashes, TV’s original morning programs were built for comfort, not clashes. When “Today” launched in January 1952, host Dave Garroway led the proceedings with a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs and used Les Brown’s pop hit “Sentimental Journey” as the show’s theme. CBS tried to challenge its rival by teaming Walter Cronkite with a lion puppet named Charlemagne. ABC’S “GMA” took itself less seriously at launch and tried to project the image of holding forth in a living room, not a newsroom. “Our view was ‘Look into the camera; have a conversation with one viewer,’ even though there were millions of them out there,” recalls Hartman.

The dizzying array of outlets now vying for morning attention puts pressure on all the shows to put up more content and throw something new at viewers at every turn. Even short bursts of surprise can help. Producers at “Today” recently booked Sen. Bernie Sanders as well as comedian Larry David, who often plays him on “Saturday Night Live.” The show managed to get both men to stand with Al Roker in the show’s Orange Room for a between-segments appearance, and cajoled Sanders into helping Roker with the weather. (At a meeting backstage, producers from the 9 a.m. “Today” broadcast tried, unsuccessfully, to get David to stay for their show too.)

When George Merlis ran “Good Morning America” in the mid-1970s as executive producer, he recalls that producers would add more minutes to segments. “When we had something exceptional, we could really carve out extra time. By today’s standards, a 10-minute interview is like a documentary.” With so much more morning competition, he says, top producers must navigate an avalanche each day. “It’s like a pack of howling wolves coming at you from every side.”

Even the quieter moments in early-bird TV can be a squeeze. The day has barely started, and Savannah Guthrie is already pushing up against a deadline.

The clock ticks just past 6:30 a.m. at the show’s famous Studio 1A, in a tiny hair-and-makeup room often used for production meetings as the anchors get ready to go on screen. Guthrie, Kotb, Roker and Craig Melvin are talking to producers about everything from the state of U.S.-Iran relations to a recipe that involves apples and pancetta — all elements of the coming broadcast — and Guthrie has to take a final look at the opening for the show: Due to overnight developments in the news cycle, changes are needed.

“It’s not your momma’s ‘Good Morning America.’ Nor should it be.”
Robin Roberts, “GMA”

She and executive producer Libby Leist quickly start calling other “Today” operatives, including producers in the show’s control room. Leist tracks down NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker, who is scheduled to have a one-on-one in-studio discussion with Guthrie. They need to work out new questions. “Ten years ago, the show used to be put to bed in the afternoon the day before,” says Leist, “and now there are more conversations we have reinventing the show as it gets up to air.”

NBC is working to push “Today” forward after an era of tumult. The program has been under a microscope since 2012, when it lost in the ratings to “GMA” for the first time in 16 years. That same year, co-anchor Ann Curry left in a tearful on-air goodbye. Since then, the network has tried to boost the show’s 9 a.m. hour with the likes of Billy Bush and Megyn Kelly. Lauer’s ouster in 2017 brought new scrutiny to the news division and even parent Comcast. “All the shows have their ups and downs, and I think the ‘Today’ show gets a lot of scrutiny,” says Guthrie. “I hope that’s because people think this show still matters.”

Executives believe the program has found stability with Guthrie and Kotb — and a business plan that calls for consideration of digital and social elements to be just as important as the TV programming. At 22 hours per week, there’s more “Today” on TV than there are primetime hours on the Fox broadcast network, and NBC’s vision of morning business may be one others pursue as well. ABC News has also worked to turn “GMA” into an always-on digital presence. Both programs have begun to dabble in e-commerce, allowing viewers to buy some of the products they see showcased in certain segments. “You can imagine a future in which the broadcast television show is just one piece of a larger ‘Today’ brand that people are interacting with,” says Oppenheim. Leist envisions being able to offer cooking demonstrations from the “Today” archives via Peacock, NBCUniversal’s new streaming-video service.

Across the landscape, morning anchors are doing far more than early duty. Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade leaves “Fox & Friends” to do several hours of radio, then returns for potential TV appearances. All the “Today” hosts appear on digital-video series such as “Cold Cuts,” in which Roker interviews celebrity guests while they craft a signature sandwich. Melvin anchors four hours each day on NBC and MSNBC.

“You no longer just plant your behind on a stool and do your show,” says Kotb, who does three hours each weekday as well as a “Today”-related program on SiriusXM. “If you think you’re going to go old school and do it the way you used to — those days are over.”

One morning anchor had to wrestle with the number of hours she was doing. Sheinelle Jones joined the weekend broadcast of “Today” in 2014, then took on more duties as a co-anchor of the show’s 9 a.m. hour in 2019, after NBC had to come up with a new format for the time slot in the wake of Megyn Kelly’s departure. As her kids grew older, she found herself worrying about missing out. “I felt like every time I looked, they were getting older, and on Saturday morning, what people didn’t see is I’d leave the set , run to the field for the games, take off my fake eyelashes so I could look like the other moms, take off my make-up so I could blend in.” Jones recently pared back her duties, giving up the weekend slot in favor of a Monday-to-Friday run at 9 a.m. “I agonized over it for months,” she says.

TV executives hold out hope for the future. Producers believe their shows will get new sampling on both old and new screens. Next fall, television ratings are going to include some of the viewership that watches screens in places other than the home, such as offices and hotel rooms. And sending morning segments into the streaming-video ether is gaining traction. “Ratings are certainly the standard, but we are hearing from people in different ways,” says Diana Miller, executive producer of “CBS This Morning.”

Roberts expects more transformation. When she first started doing morning TV, she says, “people really didn’t want change.” Now, “we are taking our cues from the public. We are taking our cues from how we live our lives now.”

Amid the frenzy, the anchors can’t forget why people continue to latch on to the morning show. “The way people are receiving it is shifting, but I don’t think that changes the product,” says Doukopil. “The product still has to make a connection with people.” Magid’s Carlin says that modern viewers see themselves as “survivors.” So, yes, they want to hear all the explosive news stories, but they still want to walk away feeling positive. That’s no easy task, he notes: “I think it’s very challenging for all of these shows to figure out, ‘How do they not get caught in a fear trap?’”

Some news veterans wonder whether morning TV has irrevocably lost some of its sunshine. In the current moment, lighter topics and cute conversation just aren’t as relevant as they were in the old days, says Izzy Povich, vice president of morning programming at CNN. “These are serious times,” she notes, but “maybe we will get back there one day. It would be nice.”

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