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MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ tries to keep cable news smart while expanding to four hours

On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" set, from left, co-hosts Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Wlllie Geist.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” set, from left, co-hosts Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Wlllie Geist.
(Anthony Scutro / MSNBC)

Ever since MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” became a cable news breakfast staple nearly 15 year ago, its three hosts Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist have gotten stopped by viewers who offer thoughts about the three-hour show, which airs live across the country starting at 6 a.m. on the East Coast or 3 a.m. in California.

Geist, 46, always asks the viewers about their hometowns. “They say, ‘I live in San Diego’ or ‘I live in L.A.’ and a lot of them watch live, which raises all kinds of questions about their personal lives,” he says in a recent Zoom interview along with his on-air partners.

“It was all very concerning to us,” Scarborough adds.

But the trio is not about to judge their early-rising (or perhaps sleep-deprived) fans on the West Coast, as the “Morning Joe” adds a fourth hour starting Monday. One of their aims is to capture more West Coast viewers at 6 a.m. as they get on their treadmills or stationary bikes before their commutes.

“It’s a great chance to introduce ourselves to people who don’t get up at 3 o’clock in the morning to watch us,” Scarborough says.

Scarborough, 58, says the team will consider the new audience getting its first take on the day when they present the additional hour. “We’ll probably get more news content in as far as the number of stories go,” he says. “It will be more produced in the respect of going away from our roundtables and opinion.”

(L-R) Co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski in a behind the scenes photo from the show "Morning Joe" on MSNBC.
Co-hosts and married partners Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski in a behind the scenes photo from “Morning Joe” on MSNBC.
(MIller Hawkins)

The expansion will maintain the defining characteristics of “Morning Joe” — lively, thoughtful discussions about the political topics of the day often with heavyweight Washington guests — while steering clear of what Brzezinski, 54, calls the “shock opera” style that cable news opinion hosts have adhered to in prime time.

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Parent company NBCUniversal’s “Today” show — which now takes up five hours on the NBC broadcast network — has already proved how expanding a morning TV franchise can pay off, especially at a time when new programs are difficult to launch in the current fractionalized TV landscape.
For MSNBC, the ability to turn to a resilient brand-name program for another hour comes at a time when the network is at a perilous transition point under NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde and MSNBC President Rashida Jones, who both pushed for the “Morning Joe” expansion.

It’s a great chance to introduce ourselves to people who don’t get up at three 3 o’clock in the morning to watch us.

— Joe Scarborough

MSNBC’s evening prime-time anchor Rachel Maddow has been on hiatus to work on a movie project and is expected to be off her daily program for good this summer, leaving the network without its most-watched star and no apparent successor in the wings.

Mark Whitaker, a veteran journalist and former executive at CNN and MSNBC, believes an extended “Morning Joe” will help the network hold on to its habitual viewers as management tries to address its larger challenges.

“If you watch ‘Morning Joe’ you are more likely to keep the channel on MSNBC all day long,” Whitaker says. “It doesn’t solve their prime-time problem, but at least it gives the people who have been the core MSNBC audience for the last decade a reason to start their day with the network.”

“Morning Joe” doesn’t have the largest cable news audience in the morning — it trails in second place behind Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” and recently slipped behind CNN’s “New Day” to third place in the 25-to-54 age group favored by advertisers after finishing second in 2021. But Scarborough, Brzezinski and Geist know from texts and phone calls they receive after every show that influential people, especially in Washington, watch regularly. The program shows up on screens at the congressional gym and on government jets. (Former President Donald Trump offered real-time critiques on Twitter when he was in the White House).

Nielsen data shows the “Morning Joe” audience is more upscale than the competition as 30% of the homes watching earn more than $125,000 a year, compared with 29% for CNN’s “New Day” and 27% for “Fox & Friends.” “Morning Joe” also has the most Black viewers of any cable program in its time period.

Licht will take over the news organization in May after Discovery completes its acquisition of CNN parent WarnerMedia.

Cable news has changed since “Morning Joe” was launched almost by accident in 2007 — the program replaced a popular simulcast of Don Imus’ radio program after he was ousted for making racist remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. Networks increasingly cater to polarized political tribes, with MSNBC the campground for progressives and Republican anti-Trumpers and Fox News the leading platform for conservatives.

“Morning Joe” largely manages to stay in a neutral zone. Scarborough says he doesn’t even know how Geist has voted in presidential elections since they have worked together. (The trio is the longest-running morning show team on national TV, while the program’s executive producer Alex Korson — now vice president of morning programming for MSNBC — has been at the helm since 2011 when he replaced Chris Licht, the recently named president of CNN.)

Scarborough’s own political leanings were known to the audience as he came to MSNBC after a career in Congress, where he was elected as part of the Republican Revolution in 1994. After leaving the House of Representatives in 2001, he joined MSNBC in 2003 and served up conservative outrage in prime time for MSNBC for four years before moving to the morning.

Perhaps a result of the more progressive slant of MSNBC in recent years, Scarborough often gets told by longtime fans that he is no longer a conservative. “It’s not me, it’s you,” he says he often tells them and cites Trump as the reason. In 2017 he left the Republican party and registered as an independent.

“I think Donald Trump reshuffled the deck,” Scarborough says from his Florida home. “We’re still in a time period where you were defined as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ by whether you supported Donald Trump or not. And so by Trump standards I’m not a conservative. But if you look at my positions, I’m still very pro-military, I support the 2nd Amendment, I’m still a fiscal hawk. The further we move down this chaotic path we’ve been going down as a country the past 25 years, the more conservative with a small ‘c’ I am.”

What has changed is the personal connection between Scarborough and Brzezinski, who had different spouses when the show started. They are now a couple, revealing their long-rumored romantic relationship in 2017 and marrying a year later.

"Morning Joe"  co-host Wlllie Geist in a behind the scenes photo from the show on MSNBC.
Wlllie Geist, “Morning Joe” co-host and “Sunday Today” host, in a behind-the-scenes photo at MSNBC.
(MSNBC)

The union likely didn’t come as a surprise to longtime fans. The on-screen dynamic that developed over the years had Scarborough and Brzezinski barreling through topics with passion, playfulness and sometimes tension, buffeted by the bone-dry Geist’s wry asides and observations, creating a family breakfast table vibe.

“In terms of a TV performance, I think the chemistry has always been there and has been the same,” says Geist, who is also host of “Sunday Today” on NBC. “It’s the three of us being our authentic selves.”

Brzezinski, a network veteran correspondent and anchor before she joined the program, had long been the counterweight to Scarborough’s exuberance and occasional hyperbole. But in recent years, she believes her husband became the steadying force of the two during the Trump era.

“I did kind of lose my footing in those years because I did not know how to handle the constant surprise and dismissiveness that [Trump] could have to our values,” Brzezinski says. “And Joe knew how to give us the bigger picture about how this country is resilient, and bring calm to the situation.”

When Brzezinski first saw the “Saturday Night Live” parody of her by Kate McKinnon, she told Scarborough, “Oh my God, you have become the sane one and I’ve become the crazy one.”

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Scarborough noted how he had to be the voice of reason for conservative relatives when Democrats were in office. “In 2008 when Barack Obama was elected I’d have to say, ‘It’s OK, there’s not going to be Sharia law in Oklahoma next week — you’re good,” he says.

Scarborough believes Geist now provides the guardrails on the program. “Willie cools down the temperature,” he says. “When Mika or I go a little too crazy, Willie’s always there smiling going, ‘OK, listen, ‘nobody likes to see mom and dad fight.’”

If you add three going on four hours of live TV, COVID lockdowns, which had the hosts broadcasting from their homes, and marriage, Brzezinski and Scarborough are testing the boundaries of marital closeness.

When asked if they were together all the time, Scarborough says, “All … the … time.”

“Every second,” Brzezinski adds.

“And it’s been great,” says Scarborough.

“It’s been amazing,” says Brzezinski. “Like every second.”

“Every second,” says Scarborough.

In the last month, “Morning Joe” has been a more subdued affair as it deals with fresh news on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The story cuts close to the bone for Brzezinski, whose late father Zbigniew Brzezinski was a national security advisor during the Carter administration.

Her brother Mark is U.S. ambassador to Poland, now on the tense frontlines of the war amid fears that Russia’s attack could spill into neighboring NATO countries. After traveling to Warsaw to help her brother settle in, she pulled out photo albums to recall a family trip where they searched for her father’s grandparents’ gravesites in Lviv.

Brzezinski and company are hopeful that the grim images of the invasion — and the courage of the Ukrainian people — will return a seriousness to political discussion in a country where masks and vaccine mandates have been equated with tyranny.

“People talk about their freedom being threatened by somebody not giving them a pickle on their hamburger,” Scarborough says. “Ukraine has been a clarifying moment ... we remember what freedom is about.”


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