With New Primetime Show, CNN Bets on Chris Cuomo

Chris Cuomo - Publicity - H 2018
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Turner

The fast-talking, playfully combative morning show host is getting his own platform June 4.

There's something about Chris Cuomo, because even people who fight with him on television still seem to really like him. Anthony Scaramucci, a fellow Italian and reliable television combatant, considers him a friend. Kellyanne Conway, who has tussled with Cuomo on a regular basis for months now in off-the-rails interviews that get chopped up and shared all over the Internet, appeared genuinely excited for him when CNN announced in mid-March he would get his own primetime show.

On the morning of April 30, Cuomo accused prominent conservative Matt Schlapp of hypocrisy and "selective outrage" for criticizing comedian Michelle Wolf's performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner while seemingly defending President Trump's mockery of a disabled reporter on the campaign trail.

"My lord," a visibly shocked Schlapp said at the end of the 26-minute-long segment. A few weeks later, he sang Cuomo's praises to The Hollywood Reporter. "I like him, I respect him, he's never been dishonest to me," said Schlapp, who has appeared on Cuomo's show for two years. "He doesn't check his passion, and if his passion is ignited, he lets it go. And, I think that's good TV, and there's nothing wrong with it, and I've never felt it was unfair."

For Cuomo, moving from the morning show he co-hosts with Alisyn Camerota — New Day — to an hourly perch in the middle of CNN's primetime block is a big opportunity for an anchor on the rise. Cuomo demo'd the show for a month earlier this year, which the network called a "special" but was seen as a tryout for a permanent spot.

Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, also has a lot riding on the success of Cuomo's show. Zucker poached Cuomo from ABC News about a week after he took charge of the network in January 2013. Zucker, a longtime denizen of morning television, gave Cuomo an important assignment co-anchoring the network's morning show and going up against two titans of the time block — Fox & Friends and MSNBC's Morning Joe.

While New Day hasn't quite kept pace with the competition in the ratings (625,000 average total viewers last month, compared with more than one million for the competition), the show regularly makes news and is intended to be a more journalistic alternative to the two partisan punditry parties it goes up against. (CNN would not make Cuomo, Camerota or a network executive available for an interview.)

As a reporter-turned-anchor who is comfortable calling balls and strikes (or, at least pushing back on what he deems hypocrisy), Cuomo is well-suited to the current media moment. (Jake Tapper has also increased his stock during the Trump administration by taking a similar pose.)

"His intelligence and energy come through in every question he asks, in every subject he tackles, no matter how difficult," said David Westin, who ran ABC News during Cuomo's tenure and now anchors for Bloomberg TV. At ABC News, Cuomo co-anchored 20/20 and was the network's chief law and justice correspondent.

Jonathan Klein, the former head of CNN U.S., described Cuomo as "naturally aggressive" and "edgy," with a combative interview style that works even better on primetime than first thing in the morning, when viewers are just waking up.

Cuomo is "one of the best in the business," said the lawyer Michael Avenatti, who represents adult film star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford) and has appeared frequently on CNN and MSNBC in recent months. "I am confident he will do very well," he said.

After competing with Fox & Friends, perhaps the most consequential news show in cable television, and Morning Joe, Cuomo will get another massive test when he enters the 9 p.m. ring with arguably the two most popular and influential hosts in cable, Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow.

Sizing up Cuomo's competition, Klein said, "The most successful primetime cable hosts try to make sense of a confusing world for their viewers. So, it would not be surprising to see him succeed."

Schlapp said that moving Cuomo to primetime is a savvy strategic move for CNN, a network he's criticized in the past for being anti-Trump. "They have got to be making this deision because they think he can win the ratings war," he said, calling it a "nice compliment" that CNN is putting Cuomo up against his friend, Hannity. (Industry analyst Andrew Tyndall said the move will weaken CNN's morning programming, however.) 

Cuomo's intensity, which shows up generally within a minute or two of any interview he does, has long been apparent to those who have been around him. A longtime friend of the Cuomo family described Chris as a young man, playing basketball in a casual league against staffers working for his father, then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

"I cut him a lot of slack because he was 19 years old, but he was very competitive, super intense," the family friend recalled fondly.

As the son of one governor and the brother of another, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Chris Cuomo is used to being somewhat overshadowed by the other members of his famous family.

The older Cuomo brother, who is weighing a possible presidential run in 2020, has a long history of playfully ribbing his younger brother in public.

"He has an anger against me because I'm the older brother," Gov. Cuomo said at a Jewish Community Relations Council of New York Dinner on May 9. "I'm the more accomplished, smarter, more handsome brother. I'm my father's favorite. My mother's favorite. He can't deal with that so he acts out. The problem is he acts out on television about it. He's never been able to beat me in a game of basketball, and he cheats. But I don't hold any of that against him. I have love in my heart and I embrace him."

Starting June 4, Chris Cuomo will get a big-time opportunity to show his older brother what's what.