On Thursday afternoon, CNN invited me to visit the set of CNN This Morning, the network’s newly rebooted breakfast-hour bonanza, which, on Tuesday, will become the latest gabfest vying for viewers’ attention during the hectic morning rush. So naturally, when CNN boss Chris Licht dropped by for a few minutes to say hello, I asked him the question that no television executive ever wants to answer when they’re about to launch a new show: What are his expectations for the type of audience he thinks this thing can draw? Which is a more delicate way of saying, “Talk to me about the ratings.” For context, Licht has called CNN This Morning a “mass appeal play,” while also signaling that CNN’s new regime is less concerned with the relentless metric-mongering that is an ugly hallmark of cable news. How to square those two ideas?
“My first expectation is relevance,” he said. “If the show is culturally relevant, and we have the platform on a global scale to be culturally relevant, that’s the first win…I do care about the ratings, but the ratings are a reflection of the audience catching on, which they will. When I say we don’t care about the ratings, I mean that I don’t want [a producer] to decide what he’s leading with because he thinks it’s gonna pop a number, you know what I’m saying?…The reality of the situation is there is no more competitive daypart in television than the morning. The Golf Channel has a morning show. Everybody has a morning show, and there are some very good morning shows that have established audiences, so I am not pretending that this is gonna be easy. But I think we are offering something that is unique and fills a void that’s not being met by the other very good morning shows. I like our chances.”
Regardless of Licht’s expectations, it’s fair to say the stakes for CNN This Morning are high. Part of that is because the morning is what made Licht an industry hot shot, first with Morning Joe and later with CBS This Morning, which Licht executive-produced before entering the late-night ring with Stephen Colbert. He has identified the morning as a top priority of his broader network overhaul since joining as CEO this past spring. He’s even brought on his former CBS This Morning comrade Ryan Kadro, who is shepherding the reboot along with executive producer Eric Hall. The trick is that Licht now finds himself playing in a much smaller arena than he’s used to. The morning broadcast shows tend to perform in the range of 2.5 to 3.5 million total viewers, depending on the network. Fox & Friends, which leads cable news in the a.m., is generally in the universe of 1.5 million. Over at MSNBC, Morning Joe usually hovers in the high six figures, while CNN’s current morning offering, New Day, is lucky to do half of that. In the 25- to 54-year-old age bracket that advertisers care about, it would be a win for New Day at this point to break into the six figures. (No pressure.)
Licht urges patience. Speaking of his experience with Morning Joe and CBS This Morning, he said, “It took a while for both of those shows to get traction. But then, once there is sampling and once people talk about it because of the relevance—CBS This Morning had 50—five-zero—months of straight audience growth at a time where no one was growing. So, you know, it takes a minute.”
Enough about ratings and audience growth. The primary reason for my visit was to get some face time with the incoming morning hosts: prime-time star Don Lemon, White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins, and afternoon anchor Poppy Harlow, who told me of her new mandate, “People have very little time, especially in the morning. They’re getting their kids ready. They’re trying to get to their job. They’re dealing with things in their home. For many of them, we’re their first introduction to what they’re sending their kids out to in the day. What’s the news? What do I need to care about? Why do I need to care? And what’s the context?”
The idea is to do all of that but in a less politics-centric manner than the majority of CNN’s programming. Think health and wellness. Business and personal finance. In one corner of the set, there’s a kitchen-slash-coffee-bar-looking configuration where Lemon, Collins, and Harlow will stand around chitchatting for a casual segment they’ve coined “Breakfast Crew.” That doesn’t mean they won’t be all over the midterms for the next couples of weeks. “That’s the biggest story, obviously, on the radar right now,” said Lemon. “We’re leaning into the midterms.” The show also plans to leverage the star power of its parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery. So for instance, a new Warner Bros. superhero blockbuster drops and, bam, there’s Dwayne Johnson gabbing away with the hosts.
“I can’t wait to meet the cast of Succession,” said Collins. (Season four comes to HBO in spring 2023.) “I’m serious.” I wondered if Collins, who recently relocated from Washington to New York, thought her new role might be an adjustment for viewers accustomed to seeing her beam in from the White House lawn with bursts of political news that leave little room for levity. “I went to something recently,” she said, “and this lawmaker was there with his wife, and I was talking to him, like, trying to get information about something, and his wife comes up, and she’s like, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m deeply freaked out right now.’ And I was like, ‘Why?’ I’d never met her before. She was like, ‘Because you’re so serious [on TV], and it’s really weird for me to see you interacting and laughing and talking.’ And I was like, ‘Really?’” (No dice when I asked who the lawmaker was, though she did say it was a Democrat.)
Lemon, meanwhile, told me he’d started to burn out on the daily “knife fight” that is cable news in prime time. “I’m looking forward to the nonconfrontational nature of this [morning] format. People don’t want to be beaten up as they wake up with their coffee. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to hold people to account…I’m just really looking forward to elevating the conversation and making people smarter instead of just fighting.”