Behind MSNBC’s New Weekend Morning Show Revamp

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On Jan. 13, MSNBC will roll out its new take on a weekend morning show: The Weekend.

Co-hosted by Symone Sanders-Townsend, Alicia Menendez, and Michael Steele, the program was announced late last year as part of an overhaul of the cable channel’s weekend lineup. Originating from Washington D.C. and running from 8-10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, MSNBC is betting that The Weekend can deliver for its regular viewers what Morning Joe does on weekday mornings: A more casual, conversational look at the news, with some original reporting and interviews thrown in for good measure.

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The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Menendez, Steele and Symone-Townsend last week to discuss what they have planned.

To start, I’d love hear each of your thoughts on what your goals are with the show and the perspective that you hope to bring to the weekend morning time period and and also kind of what what broadly you hope viewers take away from it.

Symone Sanders-Townsend: For us, this is the place to go where we want folks to start their weekend with the news. Obviously, we are entering a very consequential election season that is colliding with a very consequential political season, there’s so many implications for what’s going to happen this year. And The Weekend is a place where we are going to talk about it all.

So in our preps, and as we’ve been putting together the show and our rehearsals and kind of practicing the kind of conversations that we’re we’re going to have, that is what really we’ve been focused on. I mean, we are premiering two days ahead of the Iowa caucuses. It is the official kickoff of the presidential primary election season, 10 days ahead of the New Hampshire primary.

So our viewers are going to be engaged. They’re going to be informed as of 2024 presidential election kicks off, and we’re also going to keep them abreast of all of the just crazy legal developments.

We’re gonna give analysis, we’re gonna give coverage. And I think the beauty about working with Alicia and Michael is that we are three very trusted voices to MSNBC viewers. Viewers are familiar with us … So we are folks who are known to the audience and we’re diverse in background but also thought, ideology, and experience.

Michael Steele: Let me just say for for me, you know, having been at MSNBC since I left the RNC in January of 2011, it has been a quite fulfilling and different experience, having the voice that I have, from my own experience coming to a network that is, you know, perceived to be one way along the political spectrum versus where I stand. A lot of folks thought oh my god, this is this is an accident waiting to happen, right? But it hasn’t been that it’s been a wonderful experience.

And so to be able to be asked to work with two incredibly accomplished journalists and operatives and who bring a diverse background of experience to the table, across the spectrum for me is a real gift … And I think that’s something the audience will immediately pick up on, is you’ve got three folks who’ve been brought into a space who will actually connect and click the way I think a lot of people want to see folks connect and click and have conversations where we may, you know, have a different point of view or experience that we’re bringing into that conversation but its respectful, it’s informative, it’s engaging, it is consistent with what’s happening in the news. And so there is that sort of level platforming, right at the beginning that I’m really, really excited about in working with these two very talented individuals.

The next level of that then gets to the heart of what Symone said and that is how we draw the audience in. This is not just ‘oh, we’re gonna recap the weekend news.’ This is not that. This is a fresh take on on what transpired this weekend. This is a way you’re gonna wake up on Saturday morning and tune in at 8 AM eastern and and sort of begin your your weekend understanding and putting in context what just happened with some different voices and opinions with different guests who sort of come in and sort of fill that backstory.

So how we engage the audience becomes a very, very important model for the success of this show. And we really want to lean into that, to make this an opportunity for people to learn and to be informed, to laugh with us to shake their heads with us. But at all times feel when those two hours are up that it was well spent, and that they got something they took away from that something as they now go on with the rest of their day.

Alicia Menendez: As Michael and Symone can attest because they have covered it, the news doesn’t stop on Friday. There have been many days in the past year where Congress was in session on Saturday and Sunday. There have been days in the past year where there were developments abroad overnight in any of the number of conflicts that we’ve been following. There are now folks on the campaign trail on Saturday or Sunday. So we are bringing news to you as it is happening in real time.

I think what makes the mornings different is that at 8 AM, we are the first thing on-air on MSNBC. We have to be people who you trust, we also have to be people who you like, and so it has been fun to spend some time together and really test that amongst ourselves. Right? I trust Symone and Michael. I like Symone and Michael and that is an important part of the value proposition when we’re asking you to wake up with us on your Saturday.

That’s such a such a big thing, when I’m watching TV in the afternoon or in the evening I’m looking for a different thing than if it’s on early in the morning, you have that closer connection to the hosts. I’m kind of curious how you are thinking about bringing that to the weekend. You’re on in the morning. People are still in their bathrobes sipping coffee, how do you make them comfortable, and also make them feel informed?

Steele: I love that imagery you just painted, because that’s me. You know, don’t be surprised if I’m in my bathrobe on set.

Menendez: I will be surprised if you show up on set in your bathrobe.

Steele: But that’s the feel that we appreciate. We appreciate out of the gate where our audience is coming from and where they are. So you want to meet that, and that’s why you know, I said this is not just a recap of the weekend news. Because that’s not what they’re expecting when they when they’re sitting there in that casual moment, thinking about what they’re going to fix for breakfast and you know what the day is going to look like getting kids to sports events, etc.

We want to create a conversation for them that they can lean into for a moment, where they can, you know, they don’t feel they have to go put on the suit to listen to, but they they can be as they are and I think that’s going to be important for us to sort of bring that side of ourselves to this conversation in a way that you don’t see, because as Alicia you know noted we are the first thing they see in the morning, live and fresh. So we want to be that way I think

Sanders-Townsend: And I would also add to that, I mean, look, I think it’s really important to note that you think about local news, right? And you can turn on the TV at any given time during the day whether it’s 5 AM, 10 AM, 11, noon, 5 PM, 6, 7, 11 PM at night, and why are people turning on their local news? Because they want to be informed. They want to know just enough to be conversational, for some people, it’s just enough to be conversational … I really just think it’s about remembering what our mission is, and our mission is to do the news, to bring people the facts and the information, the coverage and the analysis on so many consequential things that are happening.

I fundamentally believe you know, everybody talks a lot about linear and what is and isn’t happening, but when things happen in the world, people turn on the news. They go to their televisions, they turn on the news. Young people might check the socials first, but they go and they turn on the news and when something happens, or has happened, and people wake up on Saturday and Sunday morning Sunday, January 13, They’re gonna get Alicia, Michael and myself and we’re gonna give them the news.

Hopefully not in a bathrobe.

Menendez: There’s an ethos, Alex, that Symone brings to her storytelling and her journalism and that is this sense of bringing one’s full self to the table. And yes, that means being as Symone is, a seasoned political operative who’s worked two presidential campaigns. Yes, it means Michael having at one point in his life run the Republican National Committee.

It’s also about the fact that Symone is a newlywed, and Michael during commercial breaks likes to drag everyone for the holiday gifts they are or aren’t getting their spouses and I am a mom of two little girls and everyone is tortured by looking at photos of my children. You don’t stop being those people as you work through the news of the day so it’s it’s not an either or it’s an all of the above.

The show is also going to feature an “in-depth conversation with a newsmaking journalist bringing fresh new reporting the show each weekend.” Can you explain how you hope to incorporate original journalism into the program?

Sanders-Townsend: I mean, well, we are lucky that MSNBC — and across NBC News — there’s just a range of amazing reporters and journalists who are literally breaking news all the time. Alicia talked about how many times over the weekend, over the last couple of months, there’s been breaking news on Capitol Hill. And I can’t tell you how many times we’ve all fought for [Capitol Hill correspondents] Julie Tsirkin or Ali Vitali to get them on our shows so we can get the latest and greatest. There have been more than a couple of times where you know you’re doing a hit with a Julie Tsirkin and at one point in time, then-Speaker McCarthy wandered past and she stopped and got a live interview on television.

That is the caliber of journalism that is happening at NBC News. Those are all plans that we have, obviously as we come on the air on the thirteends, Congress will have just came back into session, they’re coming back on January 9, So many things they have to do, whether it’s funding for Israel, Ukraine, but they’re also tied up against a budget deadline. And so we’re gonna have some of those folks on to discuss it that weekend, but also we’re going to have newsmakers.

I’m assuming that you’ve had a few test shows under your under your belt and have been working through the format and and how it’s going to look and feel. Are there any experiences you’ve had so far as you’ve been putting the show together that stick out to you? That can maybe define the show that a viewer can expect when they tune in?

Sanders-Townsend: Oh, Alex wants us to give away the secrets y’all. I’m, well media trained. You know, going into these rehearsals, we’ve done mock interviews, we’ve ran through mock shows. We have a ethos really of the show that we want to make sure we stay true of, which is ensuring we are bringing people the latest, the greatest, the breaking news, but also making sure that there’s space for us to discuss amongst ourselves so the viewers can hear what we have to say.

I think what’s great about the three of us together is the MSNBC viewers, they are familiar with us and they want to hear our take. I regularly attend these rehearsals and I’m like “Mr. Chairman, am I right?” and that’s my signal for Michael to tell me what you really think … so we bounce off each other that way. That is going to be obviously a key feature.

Menendez: One of the things that I appreciated is that as Symone said, this is a consequential election year that is butting up against a very busy legal calendar for a former president and the current candidate for president. And I think this group understands that the core of our coverage needs to be about the stakes and not about the odds, right? There’s no point about talking about who’s up and who’s down in Iowa, unless you’re talking about why it matters, unless you’re talking about what’s on the line and you’re keeping those stakes front and center at all times.

Steele: Yeah, I echo both those sentiments. I think for me, the thing to watch for which I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, certainly for us, but also for the audience, is the evolution of this relationship amongst ourselves and with this audience. And I think that’s going to be sort of the fun part of all of this, is sort of watching those pieces kind of be put together in a way in which we are able to do and play off of each other and sort of drop little things here and there that will become a standard, that will become part of the show going forward.

And so that’s that’s the exciting part for me is how we sort of create this wonderful puzzle from the issues and the news and the events for this audience and infuse it with our own personalities. We’ve already picked up a few things about each other, which we’re going to have some fun with. To Symone’s point, we’re not going to put it all on the table Right now, But there are some things that we already know is going to be fun when that moment occurs… I think people are really like that. So I think from that standpoint, Alex, it’ll be fun to tune in each week. It’s going to be one of those things that people want to be a part of each week because of how we sort of put the puzzle together, put a little bit of ourselves into it as the glue.

As you mentioned earlier you’re launching right ahead of the Iowa caucus. Given the the significance and importance of this election year, and the fact that there’s going to be no shortage of big stories that come up over the next 11 months and beyond can you give me a sense of what you in particular are keeping your eyes on and what you hope to follow. What are the stories that you’re really focused on?

Sanders-Townsend: I think this will sound like a broken record to you, Alex, but obviously we’re focused on all the stories that are the news, like the latest and the greatest. Unfortunately, given where we are in this world as it relates to the climate crisis, there will be a morning where we get up at three, four, some if us five thirty, and a tornado has devastated parts of parts of the country or a drought has happened or a wildfire is happening. Something is late breaking in the world. And we are going to cover that as well, so this is a destination truly on Saturdays and Sundays, a viewer can tune in and they literally will get all of the news. So if it’s an earthquake that’s breaking, we’re going to cover that.

For me, I think in terms of the conversations that we’ve had, this is a year where the legal and the political are colliding. I often say that there are the when we talk about former President Trump there are the legal ramifications for his rhetoric and what he’s doing and his actions and his conduct. And then there are political ramifications for what he’s doing, his rhetoric and his conduct. Those two are colliding in so many different ways, shapes and forms this year. And that’s something I particularly am keeping a close eye on.

Steele: Symone just laid out global issues, environmental issues, obviously the legal and political dance of Donald Trump, the Joe Biden response to all of that, but the thread, the singular thread that I’m sort of tapped into is twofold: One, broadly speaking the American people. How do the American people actually digest what’s happening? How are they digesting this information? And how much more credible can we be in delivering it to them to offer clarity in a way that they may not otherwise get or receive from other news sources. We want them to turn to us to be honest. We want them — as we started this conversation and Alicia made the point — liking and trusting what we’re putting out there. That’s going to be important.

The second thread is that for me, as the former chair of the Republican Party, as someone who is still a member of the Republican Party bringing not just attention to the MAGA stuff because people fixate on that and they get lost in that, and that’s from the MAGA perspective that’s a deliberate thing. They want that to happen. What I think it’s important also to level up are the Republicans out there who are looking for a new lane, who are looking for a new way, are looking for other ways in which they can express some of those old line views of republicanism that we hear everyone saying, God I miss you know, the Bob Dole George Bush Republicans. Well, they’re still there, but they’ve gotten lost in in the translation of the party in this current iteration. So that, I think is another way of kind of leveling up the conversation on that side, folding it into the broader narrative about how the American people are digesting this information and sort of showcasing those storylines that are flowing out of places like Iowa, New Hampshire, Super Tuesday, etc, where those voters are still going to play a very important role in not just the selection of the eventual nominee, but who the next President of the United States will be.

Menendez: I just want to add one quick thing to that, which is I think all of that is primary. I also think if you look at the reporting that Symone did out of Wisconsin, during the midterms, where she talked to young Black voters, the reporting that I did out of Nevada and Arizona during the midterms focused on Latino voters, I feel the responsibility of making sure that the emerging electoral majority is given the time, space and attention that they deserve. And so that will certainly be a part of our coverage as well.

Sanders-Townsend: All of the voters we just named that whether we’re talking about Republican voters, moderate Republican voters, as I like to say the Cassidy Hutchinson’s of the world who say, “I don’t want to vote for Donald Trump, I don’t know yet if they can vote for Joe Biden.” Those are folks that are going to have to make a decision before November 2024 and will make a difference.

The emerging majority, the electorate that Alicia described, young voters are going to be critical, and millennial voters. We talk a lot about young people on college campuses. Those are Gen Z. The oldest Millennials are 38, 39, 40. They are the suburban moms. Okay, hello Alicia. These are the folks who yes they care about student loans and they care about the economy and they care about the fact that they’re they’re sending their children to schools and they are doing not just fire drills but active shooter drills and all of the experiences that these particular various demographics are having are going to play into what they decide to do at the ballot box.

And it’s not just come November, because early voting is a thing. So I can’t think of a better time honestly to be with my friends and that’s launching this show, because — everyone says it every single time — but this is the most consequential election that we have ever seen in recent history, and I’m very excited to cover it, and all the other news.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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