CNNs Morning Plan Will Face A.M. Scramble

CNN’s new chief hopes primetime anchor Don Lemon can help the network gain ground in some of TV news’ toughest terrain.

Chris Licht, who has vowed to tone down some of the more aggressive commentary at the network since taking its reins earlier this year, has enjoyed an eyebrow-raising streak in morning news. He launched the durable MSNBC franchise “Morning Joe” in 2007 and then helped CBS gain new momentum in the A.M. in 2012 by starting “CBS This Morning.” Neither program was the most-watched of its brethren, but Licht gained new viewership for the networks that backed him by providing more substantial conversation among anchors and ignoring some of the frillier elements of the time period, like cooking demonstrations or street interviews with passersby.

Now he’s betting he can do the same for CNN, even as TV networks are seeing new challenges to their sunrise efforts.

“People are increasingly going to their smartphones before turning on the TV, but morning remains a financially lucrative daypart for everybody. It’s not going anywhere,” says Jim Bell, a longtime executive producer of NBC’s “Today” who is now head of strategy for NewsBreak, a local news and information platform. A new survey from Pew Research Center released Tuesday finds the portion of Americans who often get news from television has fallen to 31% in 2022, compared with 40% in 2020.

Licht believes a new morning team at CNN will win attention for the Warner Bros. Discovery news giant. The biggest programming maneuver of Licht’s nascent tenure will send Lemon to lead a retooled A.M. format along with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. Collins will be dispatched often to cover big stories on the ground, while Lemon and Harlow will be able to mix it up while focusing not only on big headlines but also popular culture. Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s “Succession” or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs, and note the plan has the backing of Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav.

CNN declined to make executives available for comment.

Morning shows often drive the business of the news divisions that make them, especially at NBC and ABC, where “Today” and “Good Morning America” are joined in eternal battle for ratings and big interviews. But the consumers who once developed a morning habit by watching the programs their parents did have a bevy of e-newsletters and social-media headlines to follow. That in turn has created some odd turns among some of the most popular programs, with ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CBS’ “CBS Mornings” making gains among the viewers most coveted by advertisers, people between 25 and 54. Meanwhile, many A.M. shows have had trouble finding the welcoming tone that is so much a part of their essence amid the recent news cycle, so filled with polarized politics and Trump-driven antics.

On cable, where the shows have in recent years homed in tightly on politics, ad dollars have become harder to attract in the aftermath of a heady election year, when viewership tends to grow.

In 2021, CNN’s “New Day” took in about $35.1 million in advertising, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, marking a 34% fall from 2020, when it captured around $53.4 million. In comparison, Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” generated $39.8 million in 2021, while MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” won $33.1 million.

CNN’s new trio represents the latest effort by the news networks to devise a winning A.M. formula. Top producers in the genre say the goal isn’t just to deliver headlines and warm moments. “You are letting these people into your home at your most vulnerable time of day, the morning, and you wouldn’t want anyone else in your home, but you’re going to let these people in,” says Bell.

CNN is willing to take a risk to get the new show off the ground. While Lemon’s current hours — 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. — aren’t beating his rivals on Fox News or MSNBC, he has become one of the best known anchors on the network. His move to mornings will leave CNN with two hours of primetime to fill (the network still hasn’t found a permanent replacement at 9 p.m., previously led by Chris Cuomo). The new team was a closely held secret at CNN — only Licht and small handful of lieutenants (talent and development chief Amy Entelis; programming head Michael Bass; new development executive Ryan Kadro; and communications executive Matt Dornic) knew of the plans. Anchors and their agents were warned not to spill any details, so Licht could orchestrate their release.

The move will give Lemon more room to delve into the cultural issues he’s longed to do more with; he had been tapped to host a live, weekly talk show for the now-scuttled streaming hub CNN+. Harlow, who recently got a special law degree from Yale, and who also covers business topics, is said to be eager to shine a spotlight on topics and stories far from the eastern and western U.S. seaboard. And Collins, who has enjoyed a widening profile since joining CNN in 2017, will get to continue reporting from the field, something she is said to want to continue to develop as a journalist.

Lemon, Collins and Harlow may encounter challenges ahead. Lemon “is going to go from being 100% of the screen to being one-third of the screen. And then how will this new trio play in the sandbox?” asks Bell. “It always starts with high hopes and the best of intentions, but morning is a grind. You have early hours. You have ratings scrutiny. You have to decide which of my three anchors is going to get the interview that day. Over time, it can be tough.”

CNN’s best-laid plans for the morning have changed in the past. The network launched its current morning program, “New Day” in 2013, with former CNN chief Jeff Zucker proclaiming that the debut of Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan and Michaela Periera “reminds me of when we put together the ‘Today’ show team in 1996, with Katie and Matt,” a reference to the powerhouse team of Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. Zucker first gained notice by overseeing NBC’s “Today” as one of its youngest top producers.

By early 2015, however, the show pivoted, with Bolduan dispatched to a later hour and the vociferous Cuomo paired with former Fox News anchor Alisyn Camerota. The duo ushered in a tougher demeanor that came into play during the Trump administration and has, to some extent, remained, even as John Berman and Brianna Keilar took over the seats at the show. Both of those anchors are staying with CNN.

No matter who opens the news day,  morning wars often last longer than any individual soldier’s time in the trenches.

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