Don Lemon was about twenty minutes into his nightly CNN program on a recent evening when something significant threatened to distract him. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for President, had just tweeted about Lemon, and it wasn’t complimentary. CNN’s ratings were poor, Trump declared, and Lemon might be one of the causes: “With people like Don Lemon, who could expect any more?”
Producers chatting in the anchor’s ear began to buzz, and Lemon tried to tamp it down. “Trump is watching,” Lemon said to the crew during an ad break. “I got it, y’all!”
Despite the candidate’s protest, people are still watching Don Lemon – and more of him. As the U.S. election cycle has intensified, his on-air time has increased. His one-hour “CNN Tonight” now takes up two, and on some evenings, he may stay on the air until 1 a.m. or later, a schedule that is often only revealed to him after his 10 p.m. starting time, Now, the CNN anchor – who says he’s 50 even though he looks like he’s in his early thirties – is plotting directions he might pursue on the Time Warner-owned outlet once hoopla around the election subsides.
“I would like it to be a little bit looser. I would love it to be like HBO. I would love to be able to say those things you never say on basic cable. I would love to be able to have those conversations the way Bill Maher does,” says Lemon, speaking over a vanilla-scented candle he lights in his office each night to help him shake off outside distractions. Letting things rip on CNN, which airs much of its programming live, is not the easiest concept to put into action, but Lemon wonders if a mature-audiences label might help the situation.
He has articulated the idea to network executives, and recognizes that “we have to move slowly” out of deference to audience sensibilities. Still, he sees potential. “If you think in that sort of old-fashioned way, the old tradition, then OK, fine,” he says. “But we don’t live in that world anymore and you’re competing against this and this,” he adds, pointing to smartphones and mobile devices around him. “You can go on social media – even kids, you can go on Snapchat, or you can go on Instagram and you can see all kinds of things and hear all kinds of language.” Why not CNN? “I would love to have an even more, if possible, authentic conversation,” he says, because “then, you can really talk.”
Lemon is gazing into the future much as executives at all the TV-news outlets will have to in weeks ahead. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC have all enjoyed ratings surges thanks to a savage race for the White House that has engaged more viewers than has been the norm, even for election coverage. In 2015, cable news saw overall primetime viewership rise 8%, according to data cited by Pew Research Center, compared with a drop of about 7% the previous year. Annual revenue for the three major cable-news networks was projected to spike 10% to around $4 billion. CNN benefited in outsize fashion: Its primetime audience rose 38%.
All three outlets, however, are likely to see year-over-year viewership declines in 2017 – the usual pattern after a year with a presidential election. Yet each has tried to use its time in the spotlight to introduce new programming ideas and boost specific personalities. Fox News’ Megyn Kelly has thrived in recent months, in part because of her clash with Trump during a primary debate. MSNBC has reworked nearly its entire daytime programming schedule, and focused more intently on breaking news and political coverage. CNN has introduced a growing slate of original non-fiction series and documentaries.
And it has Lemon. He may not have to man so many hours after the election cycle dwindles, but is looking to incorporate some of the things he has learned working into the wee hours to move forward.
“Yes, we get more relaxed the later it is. Because you kind of get the feeling that the kids are in bed. You can have conversations that you could not have at 8 or 7, or what have you,” said Lemon. “After 11, primetime is over. You’re going into nighttime.”
Such an environment could favor Lemon, who says he prefers to conduct his show as a series of conversations between himself and the guests, rather than moderating more formal interviews. “It’s just like you and I are talking right here,” he explains. “That’s how I deal with them on the air.”
Sometimes that frankness can take a turn. In those moments, Lemon moves from conversation to confrontation.
A recent case in point: In July, Lemon tangled on air with David Clarke, the Sheriff of Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, asking him his thoughts on a violent outbreak in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that resulted in the deaths of three police officers. The law-enforcement officer was belligerent from the start, so much so that Lemon cut to a commercial break, and later urged the sheriff to “just keep the volume down here.” In another broadcast, Lemon took on Scottie Nell Hughes, a Donald Trump surrogate who has been a frequent presence on CNN, after she suggested during his show that questions about sexual abuse by her candidate were not worth discussing. Lemon, who has been open about being a victim of sexual abuse as a child, called her position “really insulting,” invoking his experience as he did so.
In the past, Lemon has been criticized for breaking away from what is typically expected of anchors. He opened one show in 2015 by putting a Confederate flag on camera as well as a poster with a racial epithet written on it that often proves controversial when uttered aloud.
“Has he on occasion said some things that even Don regrets saying? Yes. Ok? Yes,” said Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, during a recent talk at Harvard University. In the last two years, however, said Zucker, Lemon has had fewer stumbles. “I’ve made a lot of changes at CNN in the last four years. Putting Don Lemon in primetime is one of the things that I’m most proud of.”
What triggers the transformation to tart Lemon is a guest who, almost willfully, will not respond to the questions the newsman sets down.
“I don’t care what your ideology is. I don’t care what your religion is, I don’t care where you come from. If I ask you a direct question, I want you to answer directly,” Lemon said. “Answer my question, because I’m asking for the people at home, and it’s disrespectful to the viewer if you do not answer.”
At the same time, both he and producers know those moments draw more attention from the audience. “I kind of revel in those moments. I know they are good TV, and they are going to make people think and talk about a topic, especially if it’s someone I disagree with, or if they are giving me some false information,” he said. “You are going to do your research after that interview, to go and see which of us was right.”
In a different era, cable-news outlets didn’t put as much emphasis on the late shift. News after 11 p.m. has long been the home of local stations. Now, with more consumers engaged with social media well into the evening, news that breaks after the workday – and after the evening-news programs on the broadcast networks – can resound quite loudly.
“I think everyone has seen that you can do news a little bit later than everybody has been doing it live, and there is an audience for it, “said Jonathan Wald, the veteran TV-news producer who oversees Lemon’s “CNN Tonight.” What makes Lemon stand out from others, he says, is a desire to draw out real responses. “It’s a lot to ask for the truth, because no one really knows the truth, but if he can push for answers, that’s really anybody can ask for. That’s noble and I think he’s doing an ever-improving job of trying to get answers out of people.”
Executives at MSNBC have been among the outlets testing new late-news programs. In September, the NBCUniversal-owned cable-news outlet launched none other than former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams in its 11 p.m slot. He hosts a fast-paced 30 (sometimes 60) minute session dubbed “The 11th Hour” that focuses on late news in the election cycle. Fox News dominates the time-slot, but more of the people who advertisers pay for watch Lemon’s show on CNN compared with Williams’ according to Nielsen, though more people overall are tuning to MSNBC. The ’11th Hour” is expected to end after Election Day, and a spokeswoman for the network declined to comment on whether executives there were considering having Williams continue past that date.
“I do think it’s a counter move, and I’m kind of flattered by it. They rolled out the big guns to go up against little old Don Lemon,” the anchor said, adding that having competition is healthy. “There’s enough room for everybody.”
For Lemon, as well. He had been at CNN for several years, and became known as the network’s weekend anchor. “Here was a guy who was doing a hard role that not everyone was going to want,” said Wald. “People forget there’s always breaking news on weekends. When Whitney Houston died, if you were watching that night, you felt you were part of something, and Don led that coverage.” In 2014, Lemon gained more presence by hosting much of the network’s marathon coverage of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – programming that told viewers in no uncertain terms that CNN was moving away from trying to cover every story it could on its TV network and would instead work more deeply those it deemed to be of major interest.
As emphasis on the election fades, Lemon says he wants to revive a focus on social issues – matters of culture and race – that helped him gain notice when he was working on trial runs doing things like filing in for colleague Erin Burnett when she was on maternity leave. He says he doesn’t get too invested in politics. Too many of the people involved are eager to switch alliances, he suggests, and he sees many guests duke it out on camera and then proceed to go out for a drink. “It’s a lesson for people at home not to take everything so seriously.”
Instead, he says, it’s social issues that spark more true conversations. Lemon said he began highlighting issues such as police brutality and race to viewers, in 2013 and now knows that “our editorial compass was correct, because these are going to help decide the election.”
And they are likely to continue to help the anchor raise eyebrows – an idea Lemon continues to embrace. “Otherwise, why do it?” he asks. “Otherwise, it just becomes wallpaper.”