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Evening Work for ‘Morning Joe’? MSNBC Trio Mulls Primetime Specials

Morning-Joe
Courtesy of MSNBC

After taking over a fourth hour of MSNBC’s morning schedule, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist are eyeing real estate in primetime.

Should “Morning Joe” fans get ready for an occasional jolt of “Evening Joe”?

The anchors and network are discussing the idea as rival CNN attempts to jump-start its own morning programming. Scarborough says he would like to launch a series of quarterly — potentially even monthly — hourlong primetime specials that could take viewers on deep dives into topics like voting rights or into some of the challenges facing American cities. “It would be an opportunity to branch out and do some different things,” says Scarborough. MSNBC viewers have seen “Morning Joe” specials in primetime before, points out Rashida Jones, president of MSNBC. “I really want the content to drive the placement, and as the year plays out and the ideas play out, that will drive where these things hit.”

The “Morning Joe” trio do seem to have their hands full. “Morning Joe” expanded to a fourth hour this year, and the demand for more content, says Scarborough, “is killing me.” Four hours, he says, “for me is physically 10 times as hard as three hours is, and I don’t know why. We’ve had to radically alter our lifestyle.” (He and Brzezinski married in 2018.) Attentive viewers might notice that the fourth hour of the program is more structured than the others, which hinge largely on freewheeling conversations between the trio and their guests and regulars. After 9 a.m., there’s room for segments, including from Andrew Ross Sorkin and Donny Deutsch.

“Being on at 6 a.m. on the West Coast has opened an entirely new door to a new audience,” says Geist. The hosts believe there’s also room in a post-Trump era to tackle topics other than politics. Some of the show’s best moments, the three agree, surface in visits from actors and directors like Tom Hanks and Ron Howard, or discussions of outlandish trends. “People think these things are calculated,” says Scarborough, but the program tends to tack by what the anchors feel in their gut viewers crave. “We can catastrophize” about shifts in Washington, he says, and “let viewers see what the best Broadway shows are at the same time.”

Other top MSNBC personalities are reaching outside the political-news sphere. Nicolle Wallace, who holds down two hours on the afternoon schedule, recently launched a four-part miniseries for NBCU’s Peacock streaming hub that examined mental health issues and featured candid interviews with celebrities. 

As the trio seek to get broader, one significant rival with inside knowledge of how “Joe” works is testing a similar gambit. “CNN This Morning,” which launched Nov. 1 and airs opposite “Morning Joe,” is also looking beyond politics: Co-hosts Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins will report on everything from international news to Taylor Swift’s performance on the pop charts. The retooled morning program was put into motion by CNN CEO Chris Licht, who helped launch “Morning Joe” when MSNBC was seeking a replacement for radio jock Don Imus’ show in 2007.

Is “Morning Joe” facing a “Morning Joe 2.0” in CNN’s new A.M. offering? The originals don’t think so. The team has its own guiding light, says Brzezinski: Alex Korson, MSNBC’s vice president of morning programming, who has been with “Morning Joe” since 2008, and has been its executive producer for 11 years — twice as long as Licht was. “He’s a savant,” says Brzezinski.

And they probably won’t be watching their competition regularly. “It’s tough. It can be a hard slog for some people that may have done an hour in primetime,” says Scarborough, who says the MSNBC team is “going to be competing against ourselves.” As for Licht, says Scarborough, he “is a good friend of mine. I have rooted for him every step of the way. I’ll be rooting for him slightly less in this new job,” he says, jokingly.

There’s also a risk that if Trump or his supporters come back into office that “Morning Joe” may face a more difficult news environment. “In some ways,” says Brzezinski, “I think we are entering a more serious time than ever before.”

The anchors took some blows during the Trump era. Media watchers may recall a 2017 episode when the then-President went on a tirade on Twitter against the hosts because of the way some of his actions were discussed on the MSNBC program, which is popular among the Capitol Hill set. In the future, says Scarborough, the hosts intend to be more “mindful” of the rhetoric thrown their way. “We understand that what Donald Trump wants and what some of his acolytes want [is for] us to be shocked, stunned and deeply sad, and we aren’t going to play that game anymore.” Instead, he adds, “we are going to report on it.”

If the anchors extend their reach from morning routine to primetime specials, they may have a whole “Morning Joe” universe they can explore.