‘Today’ Tests Washington as Backdrop in TV’s Weekend Morning-News Battle

As NBC News’ newly minted chief White House correspondents, Kristen Welker and Peter Alexander have the sort of job that rarely ends neatly for the week on Friday at 5 p.m. And yet, every Saturday morning, this duo  —  Alexander jokingly refers to the team as “joint chiefs” — has even more to do.

Alexander and Welker are taking morning TV to (for the news industry) an exotic frontier, anchoring the Saturday broadcast of NBC’s “Today” from NBC News’ new facility in Washington, D.C.  Yes, the sight of the U.S. Capitol looming over their shoulders on screen is no doubt familiar, but for A.M. TV aficionados, it may as well look like the landscape of Saturn.  The bulk of TV’s morning-news choices hold forth in New York City, and the Saturday “Today” duo had been regularly journeying each weekend to NBC’s Studio 1A in Manhattan — “Today’s” longtime haunt —  to host the show.

Taking viewers on a weekend trip to the nation’s capital can have some advantages. “It puts us that much closer to some of the people we want to be interviewing: lawmakers, people at the White House,” says Welker, during an interview of her own after she and her co-anchor wrapped this past Saturday’s broadcast.

“It allows us to reach out personally during the week to try to book some of those people, to continue the reporting we’ve done for the week,” she adds. Both are relatively new to the “Today” desk. Alexander joined the Saturday broadcast as co-anchor in 2018, with Welker following suit in early 2020.

The move also shows NBC testing a capital offense in TV’s never-ending morning wars.  Weekday mornings, filled with viewers eager to get some news before departing for work or school, have long provided the economic bulk of morning news. But weekends are becoming more significant.

ABC News in 2019 expanded its Saturday broadcast of “Good Morning America” to two hours, doubling its length and lining it up to start at 8 a.m. on 100 stations — a time period when more weekend viewers are apt to tune in. CBS News in June of 2019 added former “CBS Evening News” anchor Jeff Glor to the Saturday broadcast of “CBS This Morning” in a bid to emphasize deeper feature reporting not always tied to the news cycle. The show saw its overall audience grow by 8% in 2020, according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, Saturday’s “GMA” saw viewership decline by 1% and Saturday’s “Today” experienced an 8% dip in audience. “GMA” and “Today” continue to win larger crowds than the CBS program.

“All businesses want to grow. Weekends are an area where there is some growth to be had,”  says Matt Carluccio, the executive producer of the weekend broadcasts of “Today,” in an interview.  “The competition is focused on that as much as we are.” He is lobbying for more stations on the west coast to show Saturday’s “Today” in a standard morning slot; some show it very early in the day.

Getting more resources on the ground in Washington is proving popular with many national news outlets, the result of a whirlwind news cycle that has put even tighter focus on the action in the city on the Potomac. CBS News moved its venerable “CBS Evening News” to D.C. in late 2019, with the idea that anchor Norah O’Donnell would have better and more immediate access to pivotal newsmakers. CNN has given more of its daytime hours to Washington-based personnel like Brianna Keilar and Jake Tapper, as has MSNBC, which features Hallie Jackson, Joy Reid, Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell from D.C. studios on weekdays. Fox News recently elevated longtime White House correspondent John Roberts to a regular anchor slot weekday afternoons.

“Today” has tested Washington before. When Garrick Ultley anchored “Meet the Press” and co-anchored weekend “Today” broadcasts from D.C. in the late 80s and early 90s, Carluccio recalls, Maria Shriver and Al Roker would travel there each weekend to do the show alongside him. Modern technology helps lend the contemporary broadcast a different vibe: Dylan Dreyer offers weather and commentary from a remote stand-up in her New York home, while the bulk of the “Today” production staff assigned to the show are still at NBC’s New York studios.

Saturday’s “Today” broadcast is one of nine programs from NBC News and MSNBC that will emanate from a new Capitol Hill-area studio in 2021. NBC News executives moved the unit’s Washington operations from a facility on Nebraska Avenue that served as a home for more than six decades. The new digs feature seven different studios that can also house programs from CNBC, Telemundo and Sky News, and will serve as a backdrop for Todd, Reid and Kasie Hunt, among others.

Alexander and Welker expect to mix breaking news with bonhomie. Their time covering the White House puts them in constant communication with each other and means they have a deeper working relationship than might be possessed by other on-air teams. “We truly are in contact, in touch, all day,” says Alexander. The pair are typically in ongoing talks about which of them should appear on what NBC News program; the latest beat details; and how to shape questions for White House press conferences.

Producers will try to spotlight their friendship. “They are tremendous reporters. They work doggedly seven days a week, and we intend to leverage all of their hard work and reporting,” says Carluccio. “But we also want people to see their other sides,” he adds. “We are going to try to make sure that we give them an opportunity to be themselves.”

Viewers who tune in January 30th should get to see a segment — produced remotely — in which Alexander and Welker meet Cody Rigsby, a popular Peloton cycling instructor. “I started screaming like a teenager,” says Welker. “My husband thought something was wrong and he came running in.”

Their comfort with one another comes naturally, says Alexander. “Anchors’ relationships are heavily scrutinized: ‘What are they really like?’” he says. But the two really do spend hours together, as do their families. “That’s different. That’s not how it always goes. It makes us, I hope, very real.”

Both journalists have found themselves under a different kind of microscope, the sort of thing that comes with being on TV most days lobbing questions at presidents and White House press secretaries. Alexander spurred former President Trump’s ire in March last year with an innocuous question he asked about reassuring Americans frightened in the early days of the pandemic. Welker in October moderated the final debate between now-President Biden and Trump, an event that took place amidst a chaotic campaign season.

A new occupant in the Oval Office shouldn’t change the core characteristics of covering the White House, says Alexander. “There are some new challenges. The last president made news 280 characters at a time.”  Now news is made in what have – so far – been more thoughtful interactions with the press and public. But the assignment remains the same, he says: “Our job is to keep asking tough questions.” On Saturdays, those will likely jockey with a few lighter moments in the nation’s capital.

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