Can BuzzFeed Save the Morning Show?

TV Features AM to DM
Can BuzzFeed Save the Morning Show?

BuzzFeed’s AM to DM is an innovation, and like most innovations it straddles the old and the new—sometimes a little uncomfortably.

On Wednesday, co-host and BuzzFeed Books founding editor Isaac Fitzgerald asked his guest, The Breakfast Club’s Charlamagne Tha God, about virulently transphobic comments made by the comedian Lil Duval on the radio program in July. (“She dying,” Duval says in The Breakfast Club segment, referring to a hypothetical trans woman who discloses that she’s trans months into their relationship. “I can’t deal with that.” He goes on to make a joke at the expense of trans author and activist Janet Mock.) Charlamagne and his co-host, DJ Envy, drew sharp criticism for laughing along with Duval, as well as for failing to condemn his hateful rhetoric more forcefully, and Fitzgerald’s prodding, though gentle, is still prodding—the sort of question on which most morning shows prefer to pass. As Charlamagne corrects Fitzgerald’s characterization of his on-air response to Duval (“That’s a hate crime,” he says in the radio segment. “You can’t do that.”), AM to DM earns our undivided attention, poised for a bristling exchange. And then Fitzgerald retreats a half step, as if the air’s suddenly gone out of him: “So, this is lesson one. You’re giving me pushback, right now, on my comment.”

It’s a moment that begs for a follow-up question—there’s a faint air of hand waving in Charlamagne’s concession that he was unaware, at the time, of the epidemic of violence against trans women, or that he might have responded differently were he himself trans—and yet Fitzgerald moves on rather swiftly. Even on Twitter, it seems, the segment is king, and the clock is always ticking.

The promise of BuzzFeed and Twitter’s twist on the venerable morning show is to dispense with the genre’s most old-fashioned conventions: the forced cheer, the anodyne interviews, the tosses to affiliate meteorologists by which you can set your watch. (Since its debut on Sept. 25, to wit, the running time of AM to DM has ranged from 50 minutes to more than an hour.) But Fitzgerald’s conversation with Charlamagne, generating and neutralizing its uncommon charge in such short order, forward-thinking enough to pose the question but not enough to pursue it further, illustrates both the potential of AM to DM and its foremost challenge. Reinventing the morning show is TV’s white whale: Change too little, and you risk becoming the next in a long line of relics; change too much, and it may become unclear that you’re a “morning show” at all.

My point here is not to single out Fitzgerald, an appealingly bearish figure with a flower tattoo on his neck. Live television is hard, and “breakfast television,” with its fraught combination of news and entertainment, seriousness and frivolity, is the medium’s Mount Olympus, felling personalities in possession of far more on-camera experience than he. Plus, when it comes to the numbers, AM to DM is a rousing success—as TechCrunch reports, the show’s first week attracted an average of 1 million unique viewers per day, 78% of whom are under 35. (For comparison’s sake, the lowest-rated of its broadcast competitors, CBS This Morning, averaged 3.5 million total viewers during the same period, and only 940,000 in the 25-54 demographic coveted by advertisers.) But the fact remains that AM to DM changes the platform, not the formula. The question now is whether this evolution’s enough: Can BuzzFeed save the morning show without dismantling it in the process?

With the affable awkwardness of Morning Joe—at least before it broke its own back starfucking Donald Trump—or CBS This Morning—minus the flirtatious spirit that Last Week Tonight has lampooned—AM to DM repurposes the genre’s familiar substructure for the digital-first generation. It already has a bullpen of recurring segments to lean on: “Fire Tweets” finds Fitzgerald and his co-host, BuzzFeed Reader’s Saeed Jones, engaging the platform’s viral humor; “Live from the District” features reporting from BuzzFeed White House correspondent Adrian Carrasquillo; “The Sit Down” brings celebrities of the hipper sort into the studio; the snoozy “Friends Again,” sponsored by Bank of America, has our hosts dissecting, say, the issues that arise when it comes time to divvy up the bill at dinner. There are occasional cameos by BuzzFeed’s culture vultures, discussing (enthusiastically) the rise of Cardi B or recapping (unaccountably) the return of Shonda Rhimes’ #TGIT; “BuzzFeed Ben” himself, editor-in-chief Ben Smith, pops in for interviews with politics’ heavier hitters, including New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and California Senator Kamala Harris. It’s designed, so far as I can tell, to be heard but not seen, or at least to be seen with one eye cast elsewhere, and in this it’s the morning show par excellence—just as my mom packed us off to school with Good Morning America blaring in the background, I can catch AM to DM while scrolling my feed or responding to emails, sipping a fresh cup of coffee.

It’s logical, perhaps, that AM to DM’s double life—the morning show that’s not a morning show—should extend to Twitter. On the one hand, Fitzgerald and Jones are admirably unstinting in their criticism of the platform; a recent discussion of the in-progress expansion from 140- to 280-character tweets raised important questions about harassment, abuse, and the drawbacks of adding an edit function. On the other, the frequent attempts to place the Twitterverse at the center of the day’s news sometimes read as ham-handed: Smith’s interview with Schneiderman began with a bafflingly ineffectual question about said character limit, while another episode’s opening approached the U.S. government’s inadequate response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico through the lens of celebrity hashtags. “Every morning, we are going to bring you the hottest conversations blowing up your timelines, our timelines, in real time,” Jones assured us the morning of the former, though in practice AM to DM is not quite so explosive. In the end, its relationship with Twitter is reminiscent of a broadcast breakfast show shilling for its network’s primetime lineup: The rules of the game don’t suddenly change just because you’re in a new ballpark.

And so it goes: “Fire Tweets” blunts the lacerating edge of the Internet’s voice by reading it aloud, then Jones turns around and admits, with surprising candor, that he’s found the news from Vegas as trying as the rest of us. Smith presses Harris on passing a “clean DREAM Act,” then segues into her obsession with Kingsman. It’s electric, or winsome, or chaotic, or novel, then it’s distracted, or misguided, or hidebound, or dull. In short, it’s a morning show, a form that seems forever in flux even as it hews to expectations. This is why we watch, I suspect—because it transforms the capriciousness of the news into the comfort of entertainment, and so straddles the line between stasis and change.

I don’t want to undersell AM to DM’s innovations; Jones himself, a queer black man hosting a popular morning show, is certainly a much-needed one. So, too, is his undeniable chemistry with his friend and co-host, absent the stilted banter and plaster-cast grins of their competitors—even if that chemistry at times feels closed off to the audience, as if we’re tagging along with two buddies exchanging an inside joke. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is AM to DM’s more serious vein: Its coverage of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, without succumbing to the usual pieties of the format, has touched on the responsibilities of journalists in the aftermath of an attack, the courage of the victims and survivors, and the politics of gun control. I only wish the show brought BuzzFeed’s journalistic muscle to bear more often, especially in areas—foreign affairs, for example—where it might carve out a new niche. When was the last time you saw a morning show cover ISIS, Afghanistan, or North Korea in depth, without reciting the president’s tweets?

This is the rub, of course: If the medium is the message, AM to DM is hitched to much the same fragmentation, and fleeting attention, as its brethren on broadcast, unable (or unwilling) to test the morning show’s beats. The form’s fundamental problem is not that it no longer mirrors our routines, though it surely does not—it’s that the very idea of the morning show, sketching the outline of the day’s conversation as the nightly news once summed it up, has been obviated by the existence of Twitter, Facebook and cable, by the growing gulf between the programs we once called “the news” and our first encounter with thing itself. Whether BuzzFeed can revive the genre, much less revolutionize it, remains to be seen, but so far the differences between AM to DM and its forebears are mostly cosmetic. In this sense, it’s to the show’s credit, and perhaps its unavoidable curse, that I found myself wondering what Jones and Fitzgerald had to say about the New York Times’ report on Harvey Weinstein when it landed Thursday afternoon—until I remembered, that is, that I’d have to wait until morning.

AM to DM airs live on Twitter weekdays at 10 a.m. ET. Watch archived episodes here.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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