How The Morning Show Pulls From Real-Life Scandal

6 minute read

The Morning Show, Apple’s marquee series on its new streaming service Apple TV+, is not a ripped-from-the-headlines true story à la The Crown or certain episodes of Law and Order: SVU. But the drama starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell is based, loosely, on NBC’s Today Show. And from the opening minutes of the first episode, it’s clear that the premiere draws inspiration from the #MeToo scandal that embroiled that network beginning in 2017. Trying to sort out how much of the show is fact and how much is fiction, however, gets a little complicated.

The Morning Show is at least partially inspired by journalist Brian Stelter’s book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, which chronicles the behind-the-scenes competition between NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS’ This Morning, circa 2012. (Stelter is a consulting producer on the show.) Those who regularly tuned into morning TV back in 2012 will remember the moment when NBC determined that Today co-hosts Matt Lauer and Ann Curry did not have chemistry and unceremoniously pushed Curry off the show. She cried. America got mad — at Lauer, at her, at the network — and many viewers changed the channel to Good Morning America. The upshot: Audiences liked to wake up to two people they thought of as America’s parents — often one man and one woman in those days. The shows were at least as much, if not more, about the chemistry between the hosts than delivering news.

NBC faced public scrutiny again in 2017 when Lauer was accused of sexual misconduct and fired from the network. Over the years, more details have begun to trickle out about Lauer’s alleged abuses. He reportedly had a button on his desk to remotely close his door, and one NBC employee said he used that button to corner her in his office. A report from NBCUniversal said the button is “a commonly available feature in executive offices in multiple NBCUniversal facilities to provide an efficient way to close the door without getting up from the desk.”

New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow’s recently published book Catch and Kill, which details his attempts to break the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse story during his time as a reporter at NBC, contains an interview with a former NBC employee who says that Lauer raped her while they were covering the Olympics. Farrow also accuses the network of forcing Farrow to pause his Weinstein reporting and eventually take it elsewhere, reportedly because they worried Weinstein would expose Lauer’s bad behavior if NBC reported on Weinstein’s history of allegations of assault.

Lauer has admitted to — and apologized for — becoming romantically involved with NBC staffers, but denied allegations of harassment and assault. NBC has also denied scuttling Farrow’s story.

Lauer is far from the only figure in the TV news world to be felled by #MeToo. Charlie Rose, Tom Brokaw and Mark Halperin were all accused of sexual misconduct in the workplace in the wake of the Weinstein allegations. (Rose apologized, Brokaw denied and Halperin did a little of both.) Top of the Morning didn’t disclose any such revelations. But The Morning Show clearly pulls from those recent events.

“The show existed before #MeToo happened,” Aniston said during a press conference. “The show was always going to be pulling a curtain [back] on the New York media world and the morning talk shows. Once #MeToo happened, the conversation drastically changed and we just incorporated it.”

The show begins with staffers on a morning show finding out via text (conveniently on their iPhones) that one of the co-anchors, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), is being fired for sexual misconduct. We find out later in the show that he had a button on his desk to remotely close his door. We also see him in conversation with a director also taken down by the #MeToo movement. That director essentially admits during the conversation to sexual assault of a minor and other misdeeds, a story that sounds all too familiar.

After the revelations, Mitch’s co-anchor Alex Levy, played by Jennifer Aniston, has to announce the news alone on air. The scene is reminiscent of Savannah Guthrie doing the same thing after Lauer was fired. We can’t know how closely her reaction is mirrored in Alex’s — Aniston’s character is angry that it happened, sad that her friend of many years is leaving her vulnerable on the show and excited that she may have an opportunity to spin this news to promote her own career — but the complicated and messy fallout certainly seems realistic based on the competitive world that Stelter presents in his book.

Aniston has said that she based her character on Diane Sawyer. “I’ve known Diane for years, and I had the joy of getting to pick her brain when I was doing research for the show,” the actor told InStyle. In particular, she was inspired by the sexism and ageism that older women on television face. “Alex’s sell-by date expired long ago,” she added, “and she’s trying to stay relevant.”

Aniston also shadowed journalists at ABC, where Sawyer once worked. “I was at Good Morning America at 5 a.m. to do some shadow work,” Aniston told Entertainment Weekly. “What a crazy world! From 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. it’s like a ghost town, and then slowly all the lights start turning on and all the sounds start getting louder and louder and louder, and then all of a sudden it’s this mad, insane, well-oiled machine and everyone’s somehow calm.” She learned a few tips from journalists who have to wake up at 3:30 every morning, like pairing Red Bull and coffee.

Many aspects of the show are purely fictional. There is no equivalent to Reese Witherspoon’s character — Bradley Jackson, a woman plucked from a smaller TV station after a video of her yelling at a protestor goes viral — on morning television right now.

But the problems Bradley faces are very real. “One thing that I thought was really demoralizing was how much they’re analyzed: Their wardrobe, their faces, their smile, their laugh are all tested, and they are put on notice if they are not appealing to an audience,” Witherspoon told EW. “Because test audiences are determining whether or not they’re likable to an American audience. Women who’ve worked so hard to become incredible journalists and to ascend to a position of what seemed like power are relatively powerless.”

Both characters suffer under this sexism even as the network they work for tries to reshape the morning show in the wake of accusations of misconduct. Their responses are pulled directly from real-world journalists. It may be that in diverging from the exact beats of any specific #MeToo scandal, The Morning Show gets as close to to the truth as any depiction we’ve seen.

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