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Mika Brzezinski has become something of a poster child for navigating the rocky terrain of being a working mother. But she’s the first to admit she doesn’t always get it right. Like when she recently FaceTimed her way into a meeting with her daughter Carlie, 16, and Carlie’s advisor. “It was like daggers coming out of the phone,” says Brzezinski. “She’s like, ‘Mom, you made it all about yourself again!’ “
But three best-selling books later — the most recent, 2013’s Obsessed, explores her struggles with food and body image — Joe Scarborough‘s able foil is expanding her brand on MSNBC with a series of conferences and her own female-focused half-hour on Morning Joe. The latter has been up and running unofficially at 8:30 a.m. for several weeks. Guests booked for March include D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Bobbi Brown and Arianna Huffington. And in April Brzezinski will hit the road with a series of conferences that dovetail with her book Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You Want. The Know Your Value Tour will kick off in Philadelphia, followed by Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston and Orlando, and feature panels of experts, keynotes and workshops designed to help women achieve the lives they want — at home and in the workplace. The tour will be featured on MSNBC and also will have a robust digital extension (msnbc.com/know-your-value) that will include video streams of the conferences.
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The extension of the Morning Joe brand comes as the program — and the network overall — faces ratings challenges. Last year, Morning Joe was overtaken by CNN’s New Day, which has bested Joe in the adults 25-54 demographic for seven months. CNN recently taunted the show with a full-page ad in The New York Times, but Scarborough brushes off the competition: “The people who watch our show run the world.”
In a chat with The Hollywood Reporter, Brzezinski and Scarborough reveal how the new segment came together, the ratings race and booking high-profile guests.
How did the 8:30 segment evolve?
Brzezinski: It was Joe’s idea and something we’ve been talking about for years in different ways. Knowing Your Value really resonated, and still people come up and talk to me about it: the impact of women’s success, women breadwinners, on their lives and relationships.
Scarborough: Everywhere we went people would go, “Let Mika talk more!” So we have really reversed roles here. Mika runs it, [and] I’m Mika’s sidekick. This is a great format for her to own, to grow, and one that she didn’t ask for, [but] one that [executive producer] Alex [Korson] and I wanted her to take on because we knew how great she is.
Why didn’t you want it?
Brzezinski: We actually had different ideas for the half-hour, and I didn’t think of myself [for it], which is funny because now I am asking women who get promotions, “How did you do it? Did you step up and ask for it?” This is just something that evolved and seemed like we needed to do it; it’s interesting and it’s time. These conversations keep popping up. We’re meeting more and more women who are confronting these issues.
There are several female panel shows in daytime now. Are you mindful of differentiating what you’re doing?
Brzezinski: It’s going to be a challenge, and we’re a work in progress and we’ll be transparent about that. I think the risk is to pander and to go for the low-hanging fruit and to do stuff that’s talky. We want to address substantial issues that impact women.
Scarborough: [At 8:30] Mika is coming on and she’s running it and I’m either in the control room or I’m her co-host. And we’ll have more of a focus on women’s issues, but it has to be consistent with the smart talk that we have the first two and a half hours.
Do you watch daytime TV?
Brzezinski: No I don’t, but I’ve seen it at times and it’s something else.
Which means what?
Brzezinski: It means that …
Scarborough: I think Mika, sometimes it’s best if you don’t talk about other TV shows.
Your show is now being beaten in the ratings by CNN’s New Day. How does that make you feel?
Scarborough: Just to be really blunt, because the influencers watch [our show], because it’s the audience that advertisers want, we make a lot of money for this network. That said, I’m really competitive, I like to win. More people have watched us for five years than CNN and hopefully more people will watch us over the next five years. But given the choice of having the most important news show to the influencers or beating CNN by a couple of points, that’s not even a close call. We are going to keep doing the same show. We don’t compete against CNN, we don’t compete against Fox, we don’t compete against Headline News, we compete against ourselves.
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So it’s the quality of the audience, not necessarily the quantity?
Scarborough: As I always say to people when they start talking about ratings: At the end of the day, SpongeBob SquarePants kicks everybody’s ass in cable news. Our job is to put on the smartest, most influential show, and good things will follow. And I’m actually glad for them over there because they had a lot of really tough articles written about them for a while. This is a tough business and so good for them. But it’s a long year.
Is booking more competitive now?
Scarborough: Not for us because we know everybody.
You don’t have to compete for newsmakers?
Scarborough: Only because all the newsmakers watch us. We have personal relationships with them. The other day, I picked up the phone and called [Senators] Bob Corker and Claire McCaskill. We have never had anybody say to us, “We can’t do you because we’re doing Headline News” or “CNN” or “Fox.” It’s not because we’re such wonderful people, it’s because they know when they’re on our show, the people that run the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal are watching. And they’re going to hear about it throughout the day.
What about beyond Morning Joe? Could the 8:30 segment eventually lead to a spinoff show?
Brzezinski: I love the job I have. We look at growing this platform and also branching out into projects that feed into the brand itself. I personally absolutely love what we have built. And ratings at this point, I don’t know what situation we’d need to get into for this to change.
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Scarborough: And having a three-hour show that you have to wake up for at four in the morning, it’s like having 17 kids. And somebody goes, “You like your 17 kids, would you like 17 more?” No thank you. Everybody was talking about Meet the Press six months ago, “Joe wanted Meet the Press, Joe wanted Meet the Press.” I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t work six days a week. I get paid pretty well here and so does Mika, and we get taken care of and we’re just in a great place.
But does that media noise get to you?
Scarborough: Not anymore. I’ve learned to completely shut it out. Mika on the other hand still reads her mentions on Twitter during the show and it drives me crazy. Don’t do that! One day I look over and she’s starting to tear up and I go, “What’s wrong?” And she’s tearing up [because] she’s looking at her mentions. And somebody [on Twitter] was saying. “You’re either getting fat or pregnant. If it’s the latter, congratulations on your new baby.” I just don’t care because I’ve just learned it doesn’t matter. As hateful as people can be online, we go to grocery stores, we walk through the airport, we walk through train stations, everybody comes up and hugs us and they all say the same thing: “Thank you for having a polite, intelligent conversation.”
Has it been hard for you to cover the Brian Williams story?
Scarborough: As this was breaking, Mika and I talked about it and the fact that Brian is a good friend, the fact that he’s a colleague, the fact that we really like him actually put more of a burden on us to make sure that we covered the story. Mika called me up and said, “I know we love him, I know it’s at our own company, but we have to do this.”
Brzezinski: The outside noise did penetrate our consciences because the pile-on, maybe I can’t even be objective talking about this, but the pile-on seemed really cruel and over-the-top. Maybe if it was someone else I wouldn’t notice it at as much. There seemed to be this glee among the other news outlets that were covering it day in and day out, every hour, every second, and putting it on front pages. There just was something about it that wasn’t completely fair. And you got the feeling that you were in the middle of a business war. So when we were covering it, we were mindful of that.
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