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Have Don Lemon’s Missteps Made Him a Misfit for Morning TV?

Have Don Lemon’s Missteps Made Him a Misfit for Morning TV?

Don Lemon

If a morning show lacks chemistry between its anchors and doesn't coddle its audience, its ratings are doomed.

Making a morning show work is sort of like performing a magic trick or putting together an Olympic dream team on the basketball court. It takes some pulling rabbits out of a hat and having anchors who gel and hand off flawlessly to each other.

I’ve worked with them all at the morning shows at some point during my 30 years in public relations in New York City. Morning shows are the big kahuna, which makes it a really tough sell to get your client or employer booked.

Years ago, I arranged for a Toys “R” Us summer toy segment on the Today show, outside on the plaza. We spent several thousand dollars putting the spot together and did a rehearsal with our toy mom the day before. The CEO sent out a company-wide email for everyone to watch.

The morning of, I was at the gym at 5:30 a.m. for a quick workout before heading to the studio when I got a call from a producer who said that Matt Lauer had canceled our toy segment because it was too commercial. How happy do you think our CEO was about that? I almost lost my job!

But at that time, Matt, Katie, Al, and Ann were on top of the world. Today's ratings were through the roof. The quartet made hundreds of millions of dollars for NBC, so they could do anything they wanted, particularly Lauer, who ruled the roost. If he said no, no one would argue or second-guess him. However, he ruled until he didn’t, and he left under a storm of controversy and alleged sexual harassment, as we all know too well.

The top-rated morning show now is Good Morning America, and for good reason. The magic and camaraderie between Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, and Michael Strahan are unmatched. It also helps that Roberts and some of GMA's correspondents, namely Gio Benitez and James Longman, are queer.

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, GMA also was hit with a bit of controversy when two of its second-tier anchors and hosts of the afternoon GMA, T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach, were caught having an affair. Their tawdriness left ABC and GMA execs with no choice but to terminate the pair. Controversy is not appreciated on a morning show, because the chemistry developed between anchors and audience is a fragile relationship. If audiences see funny business or funky comments, they'll flee like scorned lovers.

CNN, which has been trying to find an audience as of late, revamped its morning show late last year, adding their own queer representation on daybreak TV with Don Lemon, who needs no introduction. After CNN head honcho Jeff Zucker — who was the brains behind Matt, Katie, Al, and Ann — left for admitting to a relationship with an underling, CNN named Chris Licht, who co-created a morning show institution, Morning Joe, for MSNBC, its new CEO.

Licht has been busy making adjustments at CNN to shore up the network's flagging ratings.

Late last year, Licht changed the title of the network's morning program from New Day to CNN This Morning and added CNN vet Poppy Harlow and relative newcomer Kaitlan Collins as Lemon's cohosts. And if you read the news and gossip like I do, you know that things haven’t been going well between the trio.

First, CNN This Morning is the network’s lowest-rated morning show in nearly a decade, according to The Wrap. The outlet reported, “One recent comparison, within just over the show’s first three months, 'CNN This Morning' was down 16.2% in total viewers and was down 21% in the demo compared to the most recent iteration of 'New Day,' which ended in late October 2022."

Low ratings mean less advertising interest and less dollars spent on ads, and like everything else in life, it’s always about the money. The old saying in PR was that you knew a show hit rock bottom if the commercials were about ginsu knives.

Now, to be sure, when you create something new, particularly in the fickle world of television, it can take a bit of time for a show to find its audience and the audience time to find the show. It’s especially hard in the battle-weary world of morning TV.

Which brings us to the curious case of Don Lemon. Viewers are keenly aware of what works and what doesn’t, and if you believe the gossip pages, the chemistry between the anchors on CNN This Morning is frosty thanks to Lemon.

The New York Post – I know, I know – reported earlier this month that Lemon “screamed” at his two-decades-younger cohost Collins. The story said he approached her “following the show’s Thursday, Dec. 8, broadcast — and unloaded on her in front of staffers as he accused her of 'interrupting' him on air.”

Now, I can speak from experience, having worked in the industry for so long, you do hear whispers about certain people. For example, it was no secret that both Couric and Lauer were not the easiest people to work for. You need the sharpest of elbows when you reach the top and desperately try to stay there, so I read the Post stories about infighting with a bit of acceptance. Where there's smoke, there's fire.

Lemon, with his screaming, initially comes off as difficult and misogynist. It cannot be a good look if a man who's nearly 60 is screaming at a woman just over 30. It’s behind closed doors, and only those who wish to read about the drama realize it happened. But when an incident happens on camera, with a tepid audience watching, that can be a death knell for the show.

Lemon’s attitude — for lack of a better term — toward women popped out, intentionally or not, last week. When Nikki Haley announced her run for the Republican presidential nomination and said that politicians over 75 should undergo mental competency tests (Why hasn’t anyone pointed out Haley’s blatant ageism comment? Plenty of people over 75 are thriving!), Lemon argued that Haley, 51, “isn’t in her prime.”

Lemon then threw gasoline on the fire, saying that a woman is only “considered to be in their prime in their 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.” Oh. My. God. I am sure his cohosts and at least half his audience said the same thing.

Lemon went away after the show and his comments. He was hiding for a bit with his partner, cavorting on South Beach, this according to the trusty Post.

Lemon returned to his cohost gig Wednesday. He has apologized several times and will participate in “formal training,” whatever that means, at the network’s behest.

On his late evening show, Lemon was known to push the envelope and push buttons, making controversial statements and poking and prodding his guests with his opinions in the form of questions.

He has flown solo for so long that working with a team — and with two women — must make him feel a bit uncomfortable, if his recent statements and actions are any indication.

I like Don Lemon. Always have. I like that he was provocative on his evening show, even if you rolled your eyes sometimes. I also like how he stood up for our community many times, but is Lemon suitable for morning TV?

CNN is having issues with him in his new time slot. Not because he's gay, but perhaps because of an unconscious bias toward the opposite sex? Is Lemon only palatable during prime time? Is Lemon’s inflammatory behavior too much to handle with a cup of joe in the early a.m.? How long can Lemon last with Harlow and Collins?

You can’t fake chemistry. You can’t force chemistry. An audience sees right through it. If things come in threes, as they usually do, Lemon is bound to have another misfire again soon. Will another misstep make Lemon a misfit for morning television?

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.