“New Day” has brought new possibilities to CNN.
The cable-news network had long run general-news A.M. programs like “American Morning” and “Starting Point.” And indeed, when “New Day” launched in 2013, it was initially billed as something in the tradition of NBC’s “Today.”
Then the Trump administration came along.
In 2020, CNN executives view “New Day” as a place to set an agenda, and press for newsmaker bookings that will spark discussion and newsy comment. CNN last year even expanded “New Day’s” presence on the network’s international outlets. “There is certainly a great international interest in what’s going on in Washington, in the president and now the impeachment proceedings,” says Michael Bass, CNN’s executive vice president of programming. “And ‘New Day’ is generating a lot of news.”
Part of the program’s appeal lies in its anchors, Alisyn Camerota and John Berman, who often find themselves pressing reluctant guests to stick to the facts, all the while trying to balance a morning viewer’s expectations. As part of Variety’s look into how morning-news programs are transforming, the two agreed to meet in a corporate cafe at CNN’s New York headquarters after one recent broadcast. In an interview that has been edited for length and clarity, Camerota, who has been with the show since 2014, and Berman, who joined in 2018, offered a look at how they conduct their jousts with guests, and joke with each other.
Variety: Morning programs used to ease viewers into the day. In the current climate, the shows seem to have lost some of that soothing quality. Do you feel your viewers are already up and alert, even when you come on at 6?
Alisyn Camerota: I think we are the first word. I mean, that’s how we treat it. Our viewers are more plugged in, but we treat it like the first word, and we just know from the numbers that our numbers build every 15 minutes, so more and more people are joining us.
John Berman: I also think it’s an easier value proposition for CNN as compared to some of the other morning shows. People watch CNN, I think, by and large to find out what’s happening – like honest to God, what’s happening now, whereas I don’t think you necessarily turn on another morning show for that. You turn on other morning shows for other reasons, to feel good – not that you shouldn’t feel good when you watch us, you should feel great, like the best drug ever – but I think that especially in this environment what[‘s happening at this second is crucial.
Camerota: Because I’ve done morning news for so long, it’s important to me to give people some reason for living, and I think that sometimes the news, all the news, can be soul crushing. I am still conscious that we are a morning show and we do set the tone for people’s day, and they are walking out of the show with us being the last voice they’ve heard. I do try to inject a little gift of levity and a little bit of humor and a little bit of kindness. Whatever we are dealing with, this too shall pass.
Berman: One of our superpowers is supposed to be able to make the hardest most urgent news seem relatable and to transition seamlessly between that hardest, most urgent news and something more fun… In this environment, it’s hard to find them but there are moments.
Camerota: I think we fit them in every day. Just because he cracks me up and I’m ‘Ok, and we enjoy each other, I don’t want to suppress that.
Variety: What do you think viewers still don’t want to see in the morning?
Berman: So we have a dispute. Alisyn won’t swear in the morning.
Camerota: I really won’t.
Variety: Are you allowed to?
Camerota: Sure, this is cable. In the past three years, because the president has changed the language of the presidency, and to quote the president involves some level of vulgarity sometimes, and profanity, we have had to make editorial decisions about how we are going to handle that. As John knows, of course, in my personal life I am happy to employ various effective profanities from time to time.
Berman: She swears lie a f—ing sailor.
Camerota: But I don’t do that on morning TV, and I don’t feel like changing my standard just because it’s in the air. I don’t feel like doing that.
Berman: As long as it’s not inappropriate or takes away from the rest of the story, I will occasionally go out of my way to use those words just to make fun of her.
Camerota: There was a lot of a—this week. There was a lot of a–.
Berman: She would just keep saying ‘backside.’
Camerota: ‘Backside’ is funnier.
Berman: I think our audience is different than other audiences. I think we can do much more than you could or should on a competitor. I think our audience is there. Look, I’ve covered war and stuff over the years, and I’ve never felt you should exploit blood and guts and violence, and that’s not where the world is now, but if that were to become the world on our show, I absolutely would feel strongly that we show the reality.
Variety: This show has developed a reputation for tough interviews, and sometimes things can get a little charged, even antagonistic. How do you balance that desire to hold officials to account with being on during a time slot when viewers are just starting their day?
Camerota: I think we’ve learned to thread that needle really well. I think people are tuning in t ous to see people held to account. People do like I when we hold their feet to the fire. We are good at it. We know how to do it. I think that’s what people expect. So don’t worry about the tone. We are always respectful. We are always respectful. Sometimes, we have to interrupt people if they are blathering on with their talking points, but even then, our viewers expect us to get in there and stop the nonsense. I don’t wrestle with it.
Berman: We are not doing it for the full three hours, but I think it’s useful to have those voices on and people need to be challenged.
Variety: You guys do get the leeway of going longer when you’re in the middle of a particularly contentious interview. They will pull the ads.
Camerota: If we are in throes of something, we will just continue on. Our interviews are slotted for six minutes, eight minute, but our producers are flexible.
Berman: And they take it out of our paycheck.
Variety: You’ve both recently dealt with Sean Duffy on this program. Can you tell us what goes through your mind in real time when you’re trying to interview someone who is clearly reciting inaccurate talking points and still keep the show palatable for an audience?
Berman: The first thing is a very practical thing: When do you interrupt? If someone says something wrong or offensive, when do you jump in? That’s a practical thing. Do you let them finish the sentence? Do you interrupt when they are taking a breath? That’s the first thing you think about. The other thing is preparing yourself for the facts, so that when someone says something that’s not factual, you can come back with the facts.
Camerota: I just try to be armed with the facts, because I know having interviewed Sean for years, I know that Sean is going to lead with feeling. I know that Sean will lead with ‘The voters don’t believe it. They don’t buy it.’ But he will use the ‘I think, I feel,’ you know? I know that I have to be armed with the fact, because I’m not really going to dispute how somebody feels, and he is entitled to that, but I just have to say, ‘Time out, that’s not true. What you are basing your feeling on is not accurate.’ And then I just feel like we’ve given him a fair floor, a fair platform to air his concerns.
Berman: The one real back and forth I had with him where he said something that wasn’t based on fact at all… I jumped in pretty quickly and frequently on that one. What’s interesting about that is he backed off. After the interview, he had to issue a clarified statement.
Variety: Are you thinking ‘I have so many minutes left before the viewer is going to get turned off?”
Camerota: No, I have a good internal alarm clock of when something is going on too long. There was a moment with Kellyanne Conway for instance, where both of us were speaking heatedly to each other at the same exact time. I knew the audience could not tell what either of us was saying. I wasn’t going to just let her go steamrolling over me, but I knew I had about seven seconds – in my own internal alarm clock, I know when they’ve had enough. I just stop or we move on or whatever.
Variety: Are there things you want to do with the show that you have not yet done?
Berman: I think we want to do ‘Where in the World is Alisyn Camerota?’ You want to send her to places very far away, and then the difference is we are not going to find her.
Camerota: They won’t use a satellite to find me, and then they will just wonder aloud, ‘Where is she?’ That would be awesome. And you know what, you can do that on Monday. No, I think the show has carved a niche really well, and I don’t think we are going to tamper with that success. We know what this is at this point.