Here Comes the Sun

How morning shows make it the same morning every day

As a child, I only watched the Today show during summers when I would stay with my grandmother in Missouri. She would put it on in the background while we prepared breakfast or got ready to leave for that day’s activity. I had no interest in the show’s segments, but instead noticed its format. Numerous interchangeable hosts who for some reason attracted a flurry of fans outside their New York City studio, holding up signs behind the glass windows that served as the show’s backdrop. Tourists held posterboard with announcements of their engagement, messages to friends and family back home, or love letters to celebrity guests on that morning’s show. When I left the Midwest to move to New York, my grandmother called me to ask if I would be one of those people, holding a sign that said, “Hi grandma!” I gave a noncommittal answer, and she said she’d keep an eye out.

The Today show premiered in 1952, and was followed by an array of other morning shows, including Good Morning America and CBS This Morning. At the time of its premiere, liveness was a common feature of television broadcasts — television was not background noise to viewers’ activities, but rather functioned as an event to draw their focus. Viewers tuned in for both talk shows, like the long-running Ed Sullivan Show, and momentous events, like the coronation of Her Majesty Elizabeth II. Today’s innovation was not its live broadcast, but rather the way it directed this broadcast toward the most banal of settings: weekday mornings.

Morning shows standardize a certain time of day as well as a feeling to associate with it, even when nothing else seems predictable or certain

In September 2017, Buzzfeed launched AM to DM, a morning news show streaming live on Twitter. With AM to DM, Today’s studio window is transposed onto your phone screen. Viewers don’t hold signs but instead tweet out messages from the comfort of their homes. An ad circulated before its launch introduces its concept with pulsing bass and visuals including Lin-Manuel Miranda rapping, “Kit Kat sushi,” and Justin Trudeau saying “yaaaaass.” At the ad’s end, the music stops, the screen cuts to one of the show’s many mottos — “[Watch it. Talk about it.]” — then the blue Twitter logo, and the show’s hosts, Saeed Jones and Isaac Fitzgerald, get in one last joke:

“See you there!”

“Don’t you mean here?”

“They know what I mean.”

The show’s critics have derided its failure to reinvent the morning show format, with one writer claiming that its first episode “felt a little like Today and a little like TMZ’s sassy celebrity-dirt show.” But that misses the point: AM to DM is supposed to be an ordinary morning show, with a start time of 10 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. EST.

Morning shows have traditionally featured a veneer of newness: They cycle in new guests and breaking stories each weekday. Rather than disorient viewers, this constant newness reinforces the sense that things stay the same, which is the form’s selling point. By introducing each day’s variations at a regular interval, morning shows mark and standardize a certain time of day, as well as a feeling to associate with it, even when nothing else seems predictable or certain.

Mornings are normal, but they are not regular. While they happen daily, each morning of course starts and ends at a slightly different time, as the sun rises earlier in the summer and later in the winter. Our society follows a regular 24-hour cycle that glosses over each day’s variations. Morning shows are one way that mornings become regulated. Beyond merely establishing a set schedule, morning shows provide a sense of continuity. The same hosts appear every morning, continuing a conversation that picks up on the previous day’s stories and events. A morning show points to the newly risen sun in the sky. It says that today’s morning is just like yesterday’s.

Morning shows give viewers a specific type of morning: occurring Monday through Friday, and almost always “good.” These shows establish a weekly cycle, syncing their viewers up to the nine-to-five workweek, while attempting to regulate the lives of people who work on different schedules, or who are outside the full-time workforce: stay-at-home spouses, retirees, freelancers, the unemployed. Morning shows present a world where the workweek determines everyone’s schedule regardless of whether they work the same way or not. With increasingly non-traditional work environments, of which Buzzfeed has been emblematic, and a decrease in job security, AM to DM marks the workweek for a generation where that same workweek feels increasingly irrelevant. Morning shows also give their viewing public a specific time and place to rally around and weather the day together. This normalizing function feels integral in the wake of national disaster, but also more strained — and therefore more necessary — in an accelerating news cycle, wherein people receive more constant updates in ways engineered to make life seem more precarious. In this context, a morning show based in and on Twitter makes sense as more than just a combination of Today and TMZ.

In his essay “Publics and Counterpublics,” Michael Warner claimed that a “public […] unites strangers through participation alone, at least in theory.” But unlike an academic conference, a religious organization, or a queer counterpublic, a morning show significantly lowers the bar for “participation.” To be in the society-wide public of Today, one merely has to wake up each morning. Many of the show segments are so inane that viewers don’t even need to pay attention to them, freeing them up to make breakfast, brew coffee, and get dressed, or not. Your morning, whatever that entails, becomes the only criterion for joining the normative American public, regardless of what you do (or don’t do) with the rest of your day. As a morning show unifies a standardized public, the idea of normalcy, both temporally and socially, is the product. Since morning shows are basically stripped of content, they make you feel like part of “the world,” no more no less. It’s not just about belonging but about orientation: the service is existential.

It would be incorrect to call Twitter a 24-hour news source, because the website actually disregards time completely. Users can tweet whenever, wherever. AM to DM reins in this timelessness by adapting it to the morning show’s familiar cycle within which we mark our time on social media. Rather than turn on their TV in the morning, most people now turn to their phones, and checking Twitter is often more disorienting than calming or regulating: you wake up to a slew of tweets published at various times by various people, whose worlds might be very different than yours. As Lisa Gitelman points out in her book Always Already New, “the introduction of new media […] is never revolutionary: New media are less points of epistemic rupture than they are socially embedded sites for the ongoing negotiation of meaning as such.” Viewers turn to a socially embedded tool to negotiate meaning in a new moment.

A morning show points to the newly risen sun in the sky. It says that today’s morning is just like yesterday’s

AM to DM’s success depends on its ability to replicate the old morning show format on a new platform, providing viewers something they already had but forgot that they wanted. It revels in its ability to replicate some of the most hackneyed morning show segments with a tweetable veneer: The show’s first episode featured an enthusiastic interview with congresswoman Maxine Waters; there are thirst-driven conversations with actors and musicians, including Elijah Wood and the pop duo Jack & Jack; one episode showed you how to fold napkins to impress family at holiday dinners. None of these would be out of place on Today, but on AM to DM, show producers immediately turn them into an endless source of gifs. The difference isn’t just the medium, but that medium’s orientation to its audience. Today’s iconic plate-glass windows suggest that the world is just outside its studio, to be observed from a safe, pristine place. AM to DM attempts to be in the world as it happens, with the dexterity to comment on it in real time.

While liveness has long been a hallmark of morning shows, AM to DM throws its liveness into relief. (One of its more prominent slogans is “What a Time to be Live.”) Whereas Today’s liveness is tied to the fact that it provides up-to-date news to get your day started, AM to DM uses its liveness as a way to signal a change in how it integrates viewers into the show. If Today’s plate glass window is an empty gesture toward the show’s viewers and fans, who will always remain separate from the space of the studio, AM to DM incorporates as many voices as possible into its broadcast.

Today seeks to create regular mornings with continuous content and conversations, but AM to DM only finds normalcy in the unpredictability and cacophony of contemporary life. “Behind the scenes” tweets by show hosts often reinforce how last minute some of the script changes are, trying to keep pace with a new trend or Donald Trump’s latest Twitter rant. On set, they often ad-lib responses to viewer responses. Rather than glossing over chaos, AM to DM relishes it, making it feel manageable — maybe even normal.

Twitter itself is a kind of morning show, whatever the content of the tweets. The ritual of checking for blue alerts, scrolling through and idly generating tabs is a reminder that the world, whatever it contains, really exists. From this, AM to DM extracts a certain baseline comfort from the otherwise hectic process of catching up. Morning show-ness is a logic applicable to any number of media that attempt to restore a vague sense of constancy; the mildly comforting thought that however, wherever, and whenever our day begins, we are all facing it together. These gestures are the most comforting when they mean the least. Sometimes the less we really know, the easier it is to get out of bed.

This essay is part of a collection of essays on the theme of CIRCADIAN MEDIA. Also from this week, Ana Cecilia Alvarez on mourning routines, and Linda Besner on off-peak evangelists.

Adam Fales grew up in Kansas and recently graduated from Fordham University. He is a manager at Book Culture in New York City and has also written for the American Antiquarian Society’s Past is Present, the Journal of the History of Ideas’s blog, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Full Stop.