Here you are, 29-year-old Kate Bolduan, about to become a morning anchor for the first time in your life, with not just a new network TV show riding on you but perhaps your network’s chances of recovering its incredible shrinking ratings.
Well, sort of — “If I wasn’t nervous, I wouldn’t have a pulse,” she says brightly — but, well, no, not exactly. “I’ve never been nervous in front of a TV camera,” she says later.
Why her and why now? Bolduan laughs and answers with self-mocking bravado: “Because I’m super awesome!”
You’d be confident, too, if you’d scrambled up the slippery TV-news ladder as fast as Kate Bolduan. After graduating from George Washington University just eight years ago, she went from an internship at NBC News and WRC-TV in Washington to her first on-air reporting job at a station in North Carolina without a single minute on TV. She was 24 when CNN Newsource, the network’s wire service for local TV stations, hired her to cover national stories. A few short hops later, she was covering Congress for the mother network and sitting next to Wolf Blitzer as a co-anchor on “The Situation Room.”
And now this. Starting Monday at 6 a.m., Bolduan (pronounced “Baldwin”) takes on a potentially star-making role. CNN is building a three-hour block around her and co-host Chris Cuomo on its new wake-up program, called “New Day.” She’ll be the youngest morning anchor on a major network.
CNN is counting on Bolduan and Cuomo to be the sort of companionable morning TV buddies who build long-running franchises and make their hosts (see: Katie and Matt, Regis and Kelly, Hoda and Kathie Lee) into tabloid-worthy stars. Bolduan won’t be just a newsreader or a reporter, but a personality, chitchatting her way through the alarm-clock hours.
The network has spent months preparing for “New Day.” It has launched boatloads of promotional ads, hired a new executive producer (former “Good Morning America” honcho Jim Murphy) and built a new set inside its Time Warner Center studios here (the exposed-brick-and-Jetsons-Collection decor is meant to suggest a Manhattan loft, Murphy says). The promos for the program position Cuomo, 42, and Bolduan as a sunny older brother-younger sister act, a newsy Donny and Marie. In one spot, she finishes his sentence. “This. . . ” he starts, and then she chimes in with a giggle: “. . . is CNN.”
The development of “New Day” has been closely watched within the TV industry, if perhaps not so much outside of it, because it may be the key to CNN’s revival. Mornings have been a ratings sinkhole at CNN for years, one of many craters on the network’s daily schedule. While Fox News built a loyal following with the popular (and often parodied) “Fox and Friends” and MSNBC followed with the crackling political chatfest “Morning Joe,” CNN has left viewers dozing at sunrise. “New Day’s” predecessor, “Starting Point,” lasted just 17 months before facing the firing squad. At the moment, CNN pulls about 275,000 viewers from 6 to 9 a.m., less than one-quarter the audience of “Fox and Friends” and about two-thirds that of “Morning Joe.”
Potentially worse, at least from Bolduan’s perspective, is that CNN’s morning shows have been a Bermuda Triangle for their anchor-hosts. The morning slot has done little to advance the careers of, among others, Kiran Chetry, Christine Romans, Miles O’Brien and Soledad O’Brien. John Roberts and Bill Hemmer bailed out to the competition, Fox.
There are a few reasons to think this time could be different.
One of them is the presence of Murphy, a pro’s pro who has overseen the “CBS Evening News” in addition to “GMA” (where Cuomo, son and brother of New York governors, was his news anchor). He promises an energetic, news-oriented show that will dispense with some of the fluffier traditions of morning TV, such as cooking segments and mini-concerts. “New Day” will do celebrity interviews, he says, “only for the right reasons.” On the other hand: Yes, there will be a couch.
“Our hope is that it will accomplish a couple of things,” says Murphy, surveying the new set. “We want to have more than the other guys. More stories, more live shots, a lot of coverage of the big stories of the day, without being tedious. . . . We won’t be ‘Fox and Friends’ or ‘Morning Joe.’ We’ll have some of the same conversations they have, but with our own take.” The tone, he says, will be “comfy and conversational.”
Another reason is the involvement of CNN’s new boss, Jeff Zucker, who, like Murphy, knows a thing or two about morning television. Zucker established his career as the boy-wonder executive producer of the “Today” show in its Katie Couric-Matt Lauer heyday of the 1990s. He subsequently climbed through NBC’s ranks, becoming the head of its parent company, NBC Universal. Before beginning his overhaul of CNN in January, Zucker made a pit stop to launch Couric’s syndicated daytime talk show last year.
It was Zucker who gave the final sign-off on Bolduan after his first choice for the job, Erin Burnett, reportedly balked at leaving her 7 p.m. program on CNN for the 2 a.m. wake-up calls that “New Day” will require. Bolduan’s selection, he has said, was cinched when he saw her screen test with Cuomo in late February. “When I put Kate next to Chris, I just knew,” he told reporters last month.
In fact, Bolduan recognizes that the success of the program depends on that X factor. Cuomo, Bolduan and the show’s newsreader, Michaela Pereira, a former anchor at a Los Angeles station, will be on the air for three hours, making them, rather than the shifting drifts of news, the primary reason to watch. In preparation, Bolduan and her husband, Michael Gershenson, an executive with Washington’s Carlyle Group, have been hanging out with Cuomo and his wife, Cristina.
“There’s an intimate relationship you build with viewers, especially in the morning,” Bolduan says over lunch in the Time Warner Center. Ergo: “Viewers will see, and my family will say thank goodness, people will finally get to see the whole Kate. This is a format that lets Chris and I show a fuller part of our personalities. . . . There’s a little bit of exposing yourself that you have to be okay with. Welcome to morning TV.”
Bolduan’s bio could be titled “The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss.” She landed her first on-air job out of college by cobbling together a demo reel of herself reading news scripts from her days as an intern at WRC. She sent the recording to more than 50 stations; WTVD in Raleigh, N.C., an ABC affiliate, took a chance on the 23-year-old neophyte. She was thrown into a variety of assignments, including the Duke University lacrosse rape case. CNN snatched her up 14 months later.
Since then, she has covered everything from O.J. Simpson’s second trial to the 2008 and 2012 elections to the debt-ceiling negotiations. She’s honed her anchor chops at Blitzer’s side since last year.
“It doesn’t feel fast to me,” Bolduan says in response to that very suggestion. “I’m not bragging, but I feel like I’ve earned the jobs I’ve received. I don’t think people are doing me favors. You’ve got to be able to do the job.”
She adds: “I’m not trying to diminish any of my amazing colleagues and this is a high-stress job, but it’s not rocket science. . . . You get the facts, you know how to talk, [you] just go do it.”
There’s been only one small stumble along her gilded path. During a live stand-up outside the Supreme Court last June, Bolduan reported that the court had struck down the individual mandate in President Obama’s health-care overhaul, prompting Blitzer to announce the law’s demise. Bolduan was partially accurate but entirely wrong; the court said the mandate was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause, but the full opinion upheld it as a tax, thus leaving the law in place. CNN corrected the report minutes later.
To her credit, Bolduan owns the mistake. “I learned a lot of lessons from that,” she says frankly. “No matter what, I’m the face of whatever information goes out there. I’m happy to talk about it. You don’t get into this business and you do not take on this job I’ve taken on and not have on your big-girl pants.”
Also to her credit is what Bolduan doesn’t say: that the mistake arguably wasn’t her own. Bolduan had relied on the word of a producer stationed inside the courthouse; he relayed the decision to her almost as it was released, based on a hasty reading of the court’s lengthy and complicated decision.
“It’s a team effort,” she says. “And everything I’ve done on TV, every success I’ve had on TV, is because it’s not a solo act. You win as a team, and you fail as a team. And if you can’t remember that, you’re not part of the team.”
Bolduan grew up in Goshen, Ind., a small (population 31, 719) manufacturing town in the northern part of the state. Her father, Jeff Bolduan, is a surgeon and her mother, Nadine, is a former nurse. The third of four girls, she was a cheerleader, dancer and athlete (she played on GWU’s volleyball team her freshman year). She edited her high school paper, performed onstage and was named Goshen’s Junior Miss in 2000, singing show tunes in the talent portion of the competition. Her biggest disappointment, she jokes — at least it seems like a joke — is that she lost out as high-school valedictorian (she was the salutatorian).
It would be an idyllic narrative if not for two exceptionally dark clouds.
In 1994, when Bolduan was 11, a grand jury indicted her mother for reckless homicide after she struck two children while riding a Jet Ski on an Indiana lake, killing a 9-year-old girl and seriously injuring a 10-year-old. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case, but the Bolduans paid more than $1 million to settle a civil suit with the family of the injured girl, according to the Goshen News. A settlement with the dead girl’s family was not disclosed.
Then last year, Nadine Bolduan was driving the family’s SUV when she drove nearly head-on into an oncoming car, causing massive injuries to the driver of that car, according to news reports. A subsequent blood test showed that Nadine Bolduan’s blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.
She pleaded guilty and was sentenced in April to a year in state prison, with a year suspended, the News reported.
Mention of her mother’s legal issues drops like an anvil during the interview. Bolduan cuts off the inquiry. “On that topic, and I think you’ll respect this especially as a fellow journalist, I wouldn’t ask personal family questions and I wouldn’t expect you to talk about it,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Bolduan, naturally, would rather keep the focus on her show and her role on it. Given CNN’s track record in the morning, she’s aware that she’s on a high wire, and it could be a long fall if it doesn’t work out. But it’s a measure of her self-possession that she’s up for it, come what may.
“I haven’t gotten anywhere in my career by being afraid of failure,” she says. “That’s no way to operate.”
Outside of Zucker and Murphy, one of Bolduan’s biggest boosters is Pat Collins, the veteran WRC reporter who worked with her while she was a college intern at the station in 2005.
“I’m not sure what it is, but she has it,” Collins says. “ . . . I’m not totally surprised by her meteoric rise because she has that intangible thing.”
Collins favorably compares Bolduan to another Channel 4 reporter he worked with long ago. “I would say that Kate Bolduan has many of the characteristics and qualities Katie Couric has. . . . There are things you can’t teach or buy. I can’t go to Sears and buy you a good personality. I can’t go to Sears and buy you a six-pack of news sense or a brand-new sense of concern or the ability to write a story in a compelling way. God love the schools that try to teach these things, but you can’t teach them. They’re just intrinsic.”
Collins thinks there’s another parallel, too. Just as mornings became Couric’s springboard, so will they become Bolduan’s, he predicts.
“You’re watching her in the morning now,” he says. “In a few years, you’ll be watching her in the evening.”