CNN viewers are going to have to get used to waking up with someone new in the morning.
The WarnerMedia cable-news outlet on Monday launches its “New Day” a.m. franchise into a new era, with Brianna Keilar, who has gained notice over the past year with a take-no-prisoners demeanor on CNN’s afternoon schedule, joining the versatile anchor John Berman. A new executive producer will oversee it all: Eric Hall will guide the action from behind the camera.
“We will play to Brianna and Berman’s strengths — being blunt, being candid,” said Hall in an interview. “Calling a spade a spade.”
Since launching in 2013 near the start of the Jeff Zucker era at CNN, “New Day” has played no small role in pushing morning programs toward a tougher, in-your-face stance. The show’s previous anchors, Alisyn Camerota and Chris Cuomo, didn’t shy from interviews with government executives and analysts that sometimes became contentious — with CNN skipping commercial breaks to keep the unvarnished conversation flowing.
In the past, news producers often treated morning viewers as if they were fragile creatures in need of at least one cup of coffee before they could wade through grittier headlines. After a year of pandemic living, social protests and the 2020 election, however, viewers seem ready for stronger stuff.
Expect more of the same, said Hall. “Our threshold for nonsense is really low.”
Zucker has in the past described “New Day” as the program that helps set the tone for the rest of CNN’s cycle. More people are watching the program — and CNN — than a few years ago. In the first quarter of 2021, “New Day” nabbed 796,000 viewers overall, its highest level since it launched. And it ended up in a virtual tie with “Fox & Friends” among the audience most coveted by advertisers, people between 25 and 54. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” led in both overall audience and viewers in the demo during the period.
Over the course of its history, however, “New Day” has faced challenges in outmaneuvering its two main rivals. Both the MSNBC and Fox News programs have kept their on-air teams largely intact over many years, with Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist holding forth for “Joe” since 2007 and Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade staying on the “Friends” curvy couch since 1998. CNN, meanwhile, has changed its morning strategy several times over the years.
“New Day” is driven by the news, said Hall, not the personalities who deliver it. “We do a completely different show than the other morning shows,” he said. “We provide content and perspective on every story,” and work to feature “a lot more CNN talent, our reporters and people on the ground. We will essentially drive off of what they report.” He expects the program, for example, to “double down” on interviews with prominent newsmakers.
While the Washington-based Keilar will hold forth for the next while with Berman in New York, CNN intends, eventually, to have the anchors host the program from different places. Keilar will eventually return to the nation’s capital, though there will be times when the hosts work side by side, said Hall. It’s a situation CNN has tested with its mid-morning program led by Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto. Harlow is based in New York, while Sciutto often anchors from Washington. CNN has in recent months infused a larger part of its daytime schedule with its Washington staff.
Hall comes to mornings after driving new notice for CNN in the afternoons. He has supervised Keilar’s afternoon program, which has generated attention for fiery “essay” segments during which the anchor takes on disinformation and people who spread it. And he worked with Brooke Baldwin, the recently-departed afternoon anchor whose time at CNN took her from being parodied on “Saturday Night Live” to post-midnight stints with Don Lemon on New Year’s Eve (Hall has also produced some of CNN’s coverage on that night.)
New shows are “inevitably about the news and the anchors who report it,” said Hall. “I like to spotlight them.” Monday’s sunrise will bring new illumination to what the network can do early in the day.