It’s been nearly three months since CNN’s Starting Point launched. It launched first on the road for a couple of weeks while the CNN NY studios were getting adjusted (all the American Morning signage and color schemes had to come down). I wanted to give a lot of time for Starting Point before reviewing it, more so than Early Start, because of the show’s format.
The title of this piece is “Morning Soledad” and the reason for that should be self-evident; Starting Point appears on its face to be more or less CNN’s version of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Both shows take on an ensemble like format where the focus is a group of people around a desk and the cameras zoom around it and there’s an eclectic selection of intro/outro music for each break. But that’s where most of the similarities end.
There are some key differences, fundamentally key differences, between Starting Point and Morning Joe. One can argue that while CNN obviously looked at MSNBC’s show as a guide of sorts, this was never going to be a clone of Morning Joe.
Morning Joe is more of an ensemble production than Starting Point. That’s neither a strike for nor against Starting Point. It’s just different. And to be fair ensemble formats don’t always come together right away. The Five’s and The View’s did (it was easy since it was 4 on 1 in both cases). Morning Joe’s took quite a while to really gell and even longer to start becoming the “Must follow in Washington D.C.” show that it now is. Starting Point is less than three months old. Ensemble chemistry takes longer than three months in most instances.
I’m going to skip the rest of the media writer foreplay and get right to the crux of the matter. Starting Point will either succeed or fail for CNN, not because of the show’s format or its ensemble, but because of Soledad O’Brien. This show will live or die based on how she is accepted and how she does on it. You can have Morning Joe without Mika. You can have it without Willie. It would be very difficult but you might even survive without Joe because the ensemble format is so strong there. But Starting Point, with its comparatively weaker and rawer ensemble, is much more dependent on O’Brien and how she does and how she’s perceived.
That O’Brien focus totally came across the TV screen when I watched it again this morning. There may be a bunch of people sitting around that desk but one disproportionately dominates it. I don’t think that’s accidental and it isn’t necessarily a problem, though from a flow standpoint it does create a bit of a jerky phenomenon where it’s all Soledad and then suddenly it’s the group for a minute (or less than a minute many times today) and then back to all Soledad and then suddenly it’s more of an extended roundtable discussion and then back to all Soledad, etc, etc.
CNN is obviously very high on Will Cain as he has become the one constant on Starting Point. But regarded highly or not, his position and prominence are not that profound, at least based on today’s contribution. Starting Point is basically a solar system with a sun named Soledad and one planet named Will orbiting around it. Everyone else are mere asteroids.
So what is Starting Point exactly? Is it an evolving ensemble show that’s still coming together or is it a Soledad O’Brien vehicle with a few hangers on as window dressing? To be honest I can’t tell yet. And I have precious little public information to go on because Starting Point was essentially soft launched three months ago. It didn’t follow the usual CNN M.O. for launches. There was no pre-launch press blitz. Consequently, there was nothing to define what exactly Starting Point would be about which leaves it up to us to figure it out on our own. And I can’t figure it out on my own because I see a show going in two directions; ensemble and Soledad.
To make matters more frustrating for me, there is no clear cut winner here; both options have their selling points. The ensemble parts, when they have them, bring up some interesting TV because you get questions being asked that probably wouldn’t get asked if it was just one person doing the talking. But on the other hand, Soledad O’Brien is a tenacious interviewer; almost a force of nature. How tenacious? When Ken Jautz got profiled by Jon Friedman and said that Erin Burnett was “gaining traction as a tough interviewer” I sat there and thought to myself…tough? I’m not hearing about Burnett’s tough interviews. I am hearing about Soledad O’Brien’s tough interviews.
So I could make a case for Starting Point going more ensemble or going all O’Brien. I have a harder time making a case for a divided show where both happen because from what I’ve observed it’s not flowing very well. It feels forced and not very organic. In contrast, Morning Joe’s flow, with its years of practice, feels very organic and natural…even if it really isn’t.
There may be tricks to fixing this and improving the flow which CNN has yet to try. Some segments I think run too short and should be longer. Some segments today were like four questions and four answers and then it’s over. That’s not enough time to get into a subject. I had thought that one of the things Starting Point was going to be about was getting more in depth on subjects but I guess in depth doesn’t necessarily translate into increased segment time.
Clips from Starting Point segments are being picked up and used on other network news shows. This is very important for CNN because the network wants to create a “must see” brand around Starting Point. Morning Joe has that “if you live in D.C. you must watch” thing. I don’t get a sense that Starting Point is deliberately and directly targeting that same Morning Joe demographic but that doesn’t mean that CNN doesn’t want a similar kind of “must watch” status bestowed upon its morning show. Getting your clips on other news programs gets you part of the way there and we are already seeing that. Whether these segments became news value because of O’Brien’s interviewing or because of luck booking or guests saying stupid things (“Etch-a-Sketch” and Romney saying “I’m not concerned about the very poor”, anyone?) doesn’t matter. The point is it’s happening. There is a buzz beginning to take shape here.
The next step in the buzz chain would be for media writers to notice and start talking about it. That hasn’t happened yet to any significant extent. Is it an absolute requirement? No, but it certainly doesn’t hurt any. O’Brien’s interviewing is the kind of selling point CNN can try to build a real brand around Starting Point provided it’s allowed the chance to do so and not thrown off plan and off message by air sucking mega headlines about 10 year ratings lows. That kind of stuff is cable news Kryptonite, a media writer distractor, and a network momentum disruptor. But I’ve discussed this issue in detail enough already.
Ultimately, I can’t give a pass or fail rating to Starting Point at this time. I need more time to see what happens vis a vis these dueling formats of the ensemble panel vs. O’Brien herself and how the flow and chemistry evolves between the two. I wasn’t kidding when I said Morning Joe took quite a while to really find itself. It did. It took over a year. It may take Starting Point as long. The real question is will CNN have that kind of time if it’s required? Or will outside events intervene and overtake that timeline? We shall see…