CNN’s Early Start: Chemistry 101
I don’t like first day reviews. Many times a show’s debut will bear little resemblance to what the show looks like in two to three years’ time (if it lasts that long). For some reason critics and media writers love to do first day reviews despite that fact – probably because it’s expected. A new show debuts, ya gotta review it. While this works for dramas and comedies where half a dozen or more shows are already finished and in the can and can’t be changed, it’s less applicable for cable news programming which has a brand new show air from scratch every day/week and therefore can be changed on the fly. So I wanted to wait until the CNN’s Early Start and Starting Point had 1) a few weeks to settle in and 2) actually spent time in their proper studios (both shows spent the first two weeks elsewhere because the NYC studio was getting a makeover of sorts and Starting Point has spent a good deal of time on the road since then as well). Today I will be talking about CNN’s Early Start with Ashleigh Banfield and Zoraida Sambolin
A Lack of chemistry is already plaguing CNN’s new morning show “Early Start” as it attempts to gain footing one month after the launch. Hosts Ashleigh Banfield and Zoraida Sambolin “have expressed frustration about the schizophrenic nature of the show,” a source said. Another source said they just don’t gel — Banfield talks too much, Sambolin doesn’t say enough.
I read the above well before I gave Early Start a really close look and watched a show start to finish. Unfortunately for CNN the Page Six report was pretty accurate in describing what’s coming across the TV screen.
When you’re doing anchor pairings in TV news, chemistry is everything. You can easily tell the difference between the ones that work (Huntley/Brinkley, MacNeil/Lehrer, Ellerbee/Schechner, Gibson/Lunden, Couric/Lauer, Brown/McRee, etc..) fom the ones that don’t (far too many to mention here). Personal likeability between the two is not necessarily the deciding factor in determining chemistry; it is how the two personalities come together when viewed across the tube. You can have talent that gets along great off screen and still wind up with a chemistry train wreck on screen. That’s what makes TV news chemistry such an elusive target.
Chemistry, for lack of a better umbrella term, is the central problem with Early Start. You have two anchors from different environments and backgrounds being thrown together for the first time…it had better click at the start. It’s not clicking here. We have the TV equivalent of bookends…one hyper and over-caffeinated, leaving no pause unmolested, the other the equivalent of a still lake by comparison. Or, to put it in terms that should sound more familiar…this is CNN’s 2012 version of Fire and Ice.
What’s potentially more troubling for CNN is that Banfield and Sambolin both come across much better when they solo fill in during CNN Newsroom. This gives more credence to the theory that Early Start has a chemistry problem that is negatively impacting both anchors in ways that do not impact them when they are separated. Not good.
I never had the opportunity to watch Sambolin before she came to CNN. I see some of the classic “local market anchor thrust on the big stage” subdued projecting that hamstrings just about everyone to some extent when they make the cable network jump and stands in contrast to what little YouTube video I saw of her from her local market days. As is usually the case, in time I expect those newbie related manifestations will disappear. But the divide between the two anchors is so great it may not be enough to overcome the glaring discrepancy in deliveries and demeanors between Sambolin and Banfield.
I remember Banfield from her MSNBC days and I don’t recall her being this over the top back then. I never watched Court/TruTV but the few times I saw her on ABC she definitely wasn’t this over the top. But now she seems neither capable of not interrupting/talking over Sambolin nor toning down her delivery to levels she used to have. I know what Banfield is capable of on the air which makes what I’m currently seeing all the more puzzling. Where has this Red Bull infection come from?
I suspect the answer lies with the rumors we’ve heard over the years (usually fed by FTVLive) that CNN wanted to bring Robin Meade over from HLN. Meade’s show has been more competitive in the ratings with Morning Joe than anything CNN has put on in quite a while. This fact cannot have been lost on CNN brass. One wonders if someone is telling Banfield to hyper it up in the morning. This would make sense because one of the things that came across to me as I watched Early Start from start to finish was how hard it was trying to be like its sister show on HLN. It was as if CNN was saying, “We don’t want to disrupt HLN so we’re going to have to make our own Morning Express on CNN”.
The problem with that kind of copycat strategy is Morning Express works precisely because Meade is being Meade and the show is tailored to her. Too many times networks debut new shows not by tailoring the shows format to the host but by forcing the host to adapt to the format the network is hellbent on putting on the air. When that happens the result more often than not is show failure. Every successful show on cable news has been tailored to its host in one significant way or another.
Early Start hasn’t. Early Start is forcing Banfield and Sambolin into a predetermined format and tone with certain demands and expectations that apparently isn’t the best fit for the duo. In other words this problem is CNN’s creation as a function of planning, management, and expectations more so than a problem with the talent itself. Networks too frequently fault the talent for problems stemming from planning and utilization errors that were the network’s own creation.
Were Banfield and Sambolin tested together before they were hired and the shows announced? Based on the results so far you have to to ask if CNN did its due diligence. It’s a known fact that it didn’t do its due diligence on testing Parker/Spitzer…the last “one dominates the other” pairing that CNN put on air. I would also add that more than a few eyebrows were raised when the news was announced that CNN had poached Shannon High from MSNBC to EP CNN’s new morning shows given the way High’s time at MSNBC played out.
Something needs to happen and soon. Early Start with Banfield and Sambolin may be salvageable but not without major adjustments. If the chemistry issues can’t be ironed out, I would not be surprised to see the duo split up in six months time.