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In Trump News Cycle, CNN Touts New Mission for ‘New Day’

Variety logo Variety 3/8/2017 Brian Steinberg
© Provided by Variety

The clock was just a few ticks past seven in the morning during a recent broadcast of CNN’s “New Day,” and co-anchor Chris Cuomo acted as if he were grilling someone during the evening.

His early-a.m. sparring partner was Senator Shelley Moore Capito, the West Virginia Republican. In the wake of the Attorney General Jeff Sessions agreeing to recuse himself from any investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. elections, Cuomo asked, hadn’t the time come for a special prosecutor to be appointed?

When Capito didn’t move beyond talking points, Cuomo rephrased the query and asked it again. Then again. And thrice more.

“I don’t think the morning rules apply,” Cuomo told Variety. “This is a primetime accountability show that’s on in the morning.”

And so breakfast is served at CNN, where executives decided to transform what was once a simple attempt to emulate a traditional morning-news program into a harder-hitting showcase that is taking on new resonance in the era of President Trump. Cuomo and co-host Alisyn Camerota have developed a reputation as a no-nonsense duo who place more value on pressing guests for facts than on easing viewers gingerly into their day. The programming strategy suggests cable-news networks no longer need to hit the cheery tones of their broadcast counterparts in the time slot if they want to notch audience gains.

“They could go the other way in terms of being a little touchy-feely and softer, but we have recognized that’s not what the audience is looking for, and that’s not what these times call for,” says CNN president Jeff Zucker.

The dynamic is paying off: Season to date through Feb. 26, viewership among the audience most coveted by advertisers in news programming – people between 25 and 54 – is up nearly 70% at “New Day,” according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, advertising dollars placed behind the weekday program in the first 11 months of last year rose about 67.2%, according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending. “New Day” captured about $55.4 million through November of 2016 – compared with $37.5 million in all of the previous year.

Hard news is winning attention from audiences, says James Fennessy, chief executive of Standard Media Index, a New York company that tracks advertising costs and expenditures. “Cable news has picked up not just in the morning, but right through the day, an enormous amount of ratings uplift — and ad revenue to go along with that,” he says.

Cuomo has never hidden his pugilistic interview style under a rock, but some guests may be surprised by Camerota, a former Fox News Channel anchor who has, since arriving at “New Day” in 2014, tangled with everyone from now-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. The guests may fume, but Camerota keeps them talking. Some Republicans “don’t expect me to ask a tough question or hold their feet to the fire,” Camerota said. “That’s a misconception that they had.”

Other early-day news favorites are focusing on the current news cycle’s tougher material. At CBS, “CBS This Morning” has notched ratings increases by sticking more closely to a hard-news presentation. Both ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today” have focused more intently on news in recent months, placing more emphasis on streamlined opening segments when most of the harder headlines of the morning get their first airing. But if the rule of morning news has long been to offer viewers the equivalent of a soothing cup of coffee, CNN has instead been slamming stiff drinks down on the bar.

This wasn’t always the case. When “New Day” launched in 2013, part of a range of changes instituted under Zucker’s early command, it was supposed to stand as CNN’s entry in a more traditional morning news battle. The program’s initial trio, Cuomo, Kate Bolduan and Michaela Pereira, were meant to offer general-interest topics and to go wider while MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” — which everyone at CNN sees as the show’s main rival — was rooted deep in politics. Indeed, when announcing the show to press in 2013, Zucker suggested the new program “reminds me of when we put together the ‘Today’ show team in 1996, with Katie and Matt,” a reference to the powerhouse duo of Katie Couric and Matt Lauer who ruled morning news on “Today” in the 1990s and 2000s.

Executives soon discovered the cable-news audience didn’t want the typical morning-show frills, says Jim Murphy, who is transitioning from his post as CNN’s VP of morning programming to oversee the network’s documentary unit. Izzy Povich, a veteran MSNBC producer and executive who left that network last year, will take oversight of “New Day.”

“We probably made it a little bit too ‘network’ – too many topics, too many pieces, too much general-interest stuff,” Murphy said of “New Day” at the beginning. “Over the first year and a half, we tweaked that. The cable-news audience wanted hard news now.”

Now, CNN is banking that the news focus will help it prevail against “Morning Joe,” which has long relied on the interplay between co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski and their take on the news cycle for viewership. At stake are some of TV’s wealthiest and best-educated viewers. Both programs vie for viewers with higher incomes and higher levels of education. In recent months, Scarborough and Brzezinski have touted their ability to get inside the White House and mined it for scoops, although lately their view of the Trump administration has grown more skeptical.

“Morning Joe” won the advertiser demo three out of four quarters in 2016, a spokeswoman for MSNBC emphasized. “The numbers speak for themselves,” MSNBC said in a statement.  In recent weeks, however, the tide has turned: “New Day” has topped its rival in adults 25-54 for the past two months, and in three of the past four. Overall, more people tune into MSNBC’s offering than CNN’s. And Fox’s “Fox & Friends” remains the most-watched morning-news program on cable.

CNN’s Zucker thinks his morning show’s two-fisted stance has growing appeal.“I think it’s clear where Americans know they can rely to get the real story without having to worry about whether or not the anchors are worrying about their invitations to Mar-a-Lago or the White House,” he said.

Even so, the Trump White House has grown reluctant to put officials on CNN – a policy that has at times affected “New Day.” One morning last week, Vice President Michael Pence made the rounds of many of the morning-news programs, but not CNN. “It’s empowering,” notes Cuomo, who says he’d be happy to have administration officials on the show, so long as they are ready to respond to questions. “When the access becomes a proxy for a pass, you are better off being on the outside,” he said.

Camerota and Cuomo say they have no plans to relax their scrutiny, given the country’s intense focus on the White House and the President’s efforts to govern. “We don’t do ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and we don’t do pet accessories,” she says. “It just now happens the viewer really wants what we deliver.”

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