Ken Tucker: Morning News Shows Now Full of Social-Media Promotion, Synergistic Shilling — But Little News

ABC/Fred Lee

"The networks' news divisions are pumping out morning TV that is a riot of brightly colored sets, social-media branding and sponsored segments. … Their efforts are both heroic and dismaying," writes the veteran critic

This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

A few weeks ago, I turned on Good Morning America and heard a host say, "Gisele Bundchen joins us next, brought to you by Under Armor!" Gee, I'd have thought ABC would want you to think GMA was bringing you Gisele Bundchen.

I haven't watched morning TV all that much these past couple of years, so I decided to take a prolonged look. I resolved to watch every hour of one week of NBC's Today, ABC's Good Morning America and CBS This Morning. It was, as the CBS show's trademark news summary terms it, an eye-opener. I discovered that the networks' news divisions are pumping out morning TV that is a riot of brightly colored sets, social-media branding and sponsored segments. They wave wildly for the attention of viewers who can get hard-news headlines on a multitude of formats and platforms. Their efforts are both heroic and dismaying.

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Beginning on Monday, Sept. 29, all three shows led with President Obama's admission, the night before on 60 Minutes, that the intelligence community had "underestimated" the ISIS terror threat. CBS This Morning spent the most time analyzing the implications. Today and GMA led with Obama, but quickly moved into what really excited them: George Clooney got married! Today's correspondent in Venice told us Clooney and bride Amal Alamuddin were "traveling in a boat called Amore," adding helpfully, "that's Italian for 'love.' " When GMA's talking-head in Italy gushed about how the wedding guests danced to music by The Jackson 5 and Daft Punk, co-host Lara Spencer exulted, "I love it! That's so good!"

GMA is a very giddy set in general. George Stephanopoulos used to be the stiff hard-news traditionalist who bowed out of fluff segments; now, surrounded at a table by Spencer, Robin Roberts, newsreader Amy Robach and weatherperson Ginger Zee, George is more like a befuddled uncle, chuckling appreciatively when Spencer announces that ABC's Once Upon a Time is "generating so much buzz online!" I worry, however, that one day Zee, whose signature move is an amazingly rapid backpedal in high heels to the weather board, may trip and fall in her pert haste to give us "this morning's stormy cities, brought to you by Macy's!"

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Today partners Matt Lauer with Tamron Hall while Savannah Guthrie is on maternity leave. (Savannah brought the baby on set Monday: so cute!!!) Newsreader Natalie Morales and weather guy Al Roker are reliable jokesters at the semicircle table, which can make for some awkward transitions to, say, Ebola virus coverage. Like GMA, Today's color scheme can resemble a Katy Perry video shoot, with Carson Daly telling us "what's trending" in the blinding "Orange Room" (sorry: "#OrangeRoom — Tweet us now!").

It's a blessed relief to switch to the maroon brick wall of CBS This Morning, where a mere trio — Charlie Rose, Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King — manage to deliver the day's news and celeb interviews with no help from Day-Glo sets or opinionated newsreaders and weather folk. (And therefore, I'm not surprised at all that CBS is the perennial third-placer, while ABC and NBC battle over first.) It was instructive to compare Today's Monday interview with Gone Girl's Ben Affleck to This Morning's Tuesday sit-down. The CBS hosts asked Affleck about David Fincher's directing style and how the movie critiques the news media; Lauer tried to push Affleck into spilling some Batman beans, to no avail.

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The bulk of these two shows, though, mix rehashes of the previous night's evening news, true-crime coverage (the Hannah Graham abduction got as much airtime as Ebola), and promos disguised as interviews with stars of the networks' new fall shows. CBS is not without its gush ("I love your face!" yipped King on Wednesday to a startled Maggie Q, there to plug CBS' Stalker), or self-indulgence (a whole segment on Charlie giving a speech at the Al Smith dinner?). But at least CBS didn't stoop to chyron-ing the second day of Clooney marriage coverage as "breaking news" (shame, GMA) or do a fierce investigative piece about "military wife shopping" (oy, Today).

On Tuesday, after a football-injury story, Lauer called over to the #OrangeRoom, "Carson, are people talking about this online?" Silly Matt: There's nothing allowed on any of the morning shows that isn't trending.

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