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Trump Era Puts New Spotlight on Cable News’ Daytime Roster

Jim Sciutto hasn’t been known as much of a morning person at CNN. Since joining the network in 2013, the national security reporter has been on hand to deliver news of major import about Russia’s efforts to hack the 2016 presidential election and issues related to America’s intelligence community.

Now he’s on the air every weekday at 9 a.m., co-hosting “CNN Newsroom” opposite Poppy Harlow. The issues are just as serious. “The breaking news now: CNN can report that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is expecting to be fired,” Sciutto informed viewers Sept. 24 — another whirlwind day of headlines in national politics.

In the Trump era, big, consequential headlines are not just for primetime anymore.

Cable-news heavyweights used to appear mainly in the evening, where shows continue to attract the greatest number of viewers. In today’s 24/7 news cycle, however, daytime hours are becoming hot spots. Look no further than Sept. 27’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing featuring emotionally charged and graphic testimony from then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her as a teenager in 1982. The cultural uproar on both sides of the aisle over Kavanaugh’s nomination was strong enough for even the broadcast networks to break into regularly scheduled daytime programming, during the first week of the 2018-19 season no less.

Fox News, MSNBC and CNN in recent years have reworked their daytime lineups to emphasize breaking events. The Big Three of cable news have also built up their benches of veteran anchors and reporters, who are quick on their feet when tumult erupts.

Kim Rosenberg, VP of news at Fox News Channel, recalls a different era, when news outlets sometimes stocked morning and afternoon hours with “weird daytime news” — like the 2009 Balloon Boy hoax, when news networks went nuts for the story of a child whose parents claimed he floated away in a gas balloon the family had created as an experiment (the boy turned out to be tucked away in an attic). Such whimsical interludes are no longer in style. “The news cycle is really intense, probably more intense than I think it has been in many years,” says Rosenberg. “The last times I felt this way were during the Florida recount [in 2000] and 9/11.”

Sciutto joined CNN’s daytime lineup in September. CNN has also unveiled its plans to place Washington correspondent Brianna Keilar as anchor of its 1 p.m. hour sometime this fall. Fox has expanded its mid-morning “America’s Newsroom,” co-anchored by veterans Bill Hemmer and Sandra Smith, to three hours from two, while giving Harris Faulkner, another longtime anchor, a second daytime hour in the early afternoon.

MSNBC reworked its entire daytime schedule in 2015, part of an initiative under NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack to focus more on hard news and less on the issue-oriented programming that once filled the channel’s afternoon hours. Three hours of MSNBC’s daytime schedule feature either Stephanie Ruhle, Ali Velshi or both — two anchors who enjoy pushing back on their guests when they think facts are not in evidence. “These guys are fire in a bottle,” says Janelle Rodriguez, senior VP of editorial at NBC News. The reorganized daytime, she adds, has brought more viewers to the network.

“The news cycle is really intense, probably more intense than I think it has been in many years.”
Kim Rosenberg, Fox News Channel

Trump-focused reporting isn’t the only thing driving the cable-news emphasis on mornings and afternoons. News junkies who might have gone to work a decade ago could forget all about the headlines. In 2018, thanks to fresh access to all sorts of digital video, they are instead intimately engaged with streaming-video clips on social-media and the networks’ digital hubs. “A lot of audience comes to us after an alert they see on social media,” says Michael Bass, CNN’s exec VP of programming.

Societal changes brought on by new technology could continue to fuel daytime news audiences for years to come, suggests Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University. “There are more workers working from home to access the programming. In fact, the size of the work-at-home audience is larger than most cable audiences,” he says. “And in addition, technology has further enlarged the size of potential audiences working in offices, schools and factories.”

With all that in mind, the cable networks can’t be caught unawares, says Jennifer Thomas, an assistant professor of broadcast journalism at Howard University and a former CNN and HLN producer. “News organizations must react to the thirst for more information and keep the public aptly informed, which is why we see more Washington experts on the news during times when softer news may have previously dominated,” she says. In the future, daytime may get even more intense. Thomas expects to see “more in-depth investigative reporting in the newscasts as opposed to broadcasts with mainly talking heads.”

Sciutto’s national-security experience will likely add depth to CNN’s midmorning program, where he’s paired with Harlow, who has a background in business reporting. Even early in the morning, CNN needs ready access to all of its in-house expertise and contributors. “The news cycle we are in,” Bass says, “continues on hyperspeed.”

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