Willie Geist spent years as a co-host on the Today show’s weekday broadcasts before officially taking the reins of NBC Sunday mornings beginning April 17, 2016.
What was going through the newsman’s mind on that landmark day?
“I remember being incredibly excited, having been in Studio 1A so many times with all my friends and co hosts; looking up, seeing my name in the title, and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe this is happening,'” Geist told TVNewser. “And then also being a little nervous because we were trying something new with an audience that has come to know the Today show for a certain style, a certain look, and certain feel for all these years, and if they would be receptive to something that’s slightly new.”
Fast-forward five years, and it’s fair to say that the audience is still receptive, as the broadcast continues to attract millions of viewers each Sunday. Yes, CBS Sunday Morning remains the gold standard in the genre and ratings-wise, but Sunday Today is holding its own. The show won the A25-54 demo over ABC for the 1st quarter of 2021, its first win in that key measurement in two years. The timeslot competition from ABC averages more average total viewers than Sunday Today, however.
We chatted with the longtime NBC Newser on Thursday about the early days of Sunday Today with Willie Geist versus how the show looks today, his gig at Morning Joe and how that show looks under a Biden administration, as well as what he has learned from his dad about broadcasting.
*The below has been lightly edited for clarity.
TVNewser: What do you remember about that first Sunday in 2016, and what do you think is the biggest way the show has changed over the years?
Geist: I remember being thrilled that our first guest was Leslie Odom Jr. It was at the height of Hamilton mania, and we got to spend some time with him right as that all was going on. That was a big “get” for our first show for a completely unproven concept.
The show was different than it is now when we started. I think my idea at the beginning was what if I kind of blended my two lives—I was hosting the 9 o’clock hour of the Today show and Morning Joe at that time, and I took on the Sunday show as a third gig. I thought, “what if it had the elements of Morning Joe, and then at its core, it was the Today show.”
When we started, we had a roundtable and we dove right in and talked about the news. It was more analysis. What we found over time was that we still owed the audience that, “Here’s what’s happening …” at the top of the show; “here’s the news,” which we weren’t really doing. On Morning Joe, you have a political audience, and everyone has a baseline understanding of what’s going on. But with this show, we were just kind of making some assumptions. We have gotten a little bit away from that roundtable feel, and went back to more conventional for the first 10 or 12 minutes of the show, like the Today show … “It’s Sunday morning, here’s what’s going on in the world, here’s what’s important for you to know…” before turning the corner to more of a magazine-style format. It evolved over the first couple of months, but I’d say by the time we were one year in, we hit a format that we say works. We’ve tweaked it since then, but essentially what it is now is what it was I’d say it was a year in.
The last time we spoke was April 2019, when Sunday Today had moved the “news of the day” to the first quarter hour of the broadcast before transitioning to human interest and the interview segment. Are you satisfied with the current format and the state of the show in general?
Just within the last year, we made one other change where in the first half hour, we do something called the Sunday Focus. There’s the commercial break, and then we come back and we do the Focus, which is just a deeper dive on the story, or the thing that you’ve probably seen in passing or heard people talking about it or maybe scrolled past on Twitter or Facebook. We kind of do the work for you.
So last week, it was the infrastructure bill. So you hear “infrastructure, infrastructure, Joe Biden wants to do a big infrastructure bill. What does that mean? What is the bill?” We quite literally walk through it, and we have a correspondent peel through that story in a deeper way and come on live and we talk about it a little bit. So, that is new and different, and I think that was a good move and a good add, and we didn’t actually lose much. We have the Highs and Lows, which tend to be more fun things or moving things that are trending online, and we move that just to the back half of the show. So we didn’t get rid of it. I just think the order actually makes more sense before that now makes more sense than it did even a year ago.
The pandemic has created countless obstacles for the television news industry. Sunday Today had to have been impacted as well. Take us back to this time a year ago: what changes were you forced to make to the broadcast to keep it chugging along smoothly?
Like everyone, we were forced out of the studio, frankly. I did a few shows last March in the studio by myself, and then like so many people that you cover, I had a little studio popped up in my garage—literally in the garage. It’s still there, by the way.
On Sundays, I was broadcasting a show that we had done in a big beautiful Studio 1A with windows behind and people coming by even on a Sunday morning, taxi cabs and buses and everything else, and I was in my garage. I think the biggest compliment I can pay our director and our producers is that not many people noticed. We had the monitor and I would say “I’m broadcasting from home today,” we would have the scene behind me and a monitor of Rockefeller Center and the windows out from Studio 1A, but I was in my garage. I would say that up front that I was home. But really, through graphics and other production elements, we we still captured the feeling of our show, which doesn’t rely that much on the studio. We didn’t have live guests coming through, we didn’t have all those things that the weekday Today show is built on. So much of our show is packaged and tight; magazine format. I know our director would like to have a big old studio back that she could use to kind of use the cameras and steady cam and all the things that a director likes to do, but for the most part, I think our show did a really good job right away almost of capturing what the show should look like, even though I was quite literally in my garage.
How has Morning Joe changed with this new administration?
For me, it’s keeping the foot on the gas. I think there’s no question about it that over the last five years, for a lot of people across the media, there was a renewed sense of responsibility for keeping people in check and keeping people honest, because frankly, there were so many lies being spewed every single day. I think that kind of vigilance was good for everyone. My hope is that we continue to have that vigilance and that it wasn’t just about Donald Trump, even if he was the inspiration for a lot of people to sort of take that pact. I think it’s changed in that we’re not being lied to as often as we were, but certainly that’s not a that’s not a call to take things at face value. I think remaining vigilant and doing the job in an aggressive way through the years of Donald Trump hopefully has continued and will continue into the Biden years.
Your father, Bill Geist, was a Sunday morning institution at CBS Sunday Morning. What’s one thing you picked up from him in regard to broadcasting?
I think curiosity is a big one. My dad’s career was built first as a newspaper columnist in Chicago, and then in New York writing the About New York column. Just kind of walking out the door in the day before the internet and finding a story poking around making phone calls, and being literally curious about what was around the next corner in the case of New York City. Then, in his career at CBS about what was happening in the country. He’s a guy from the Midwest who was more comfortable at the Iowa State Fair than he was at a dinner party on the Upper West Side, and he was always out on the road every single week for Sunday Morning, finding some news stories. I think to be curious, and to have a sense of humor about people.
What I loved about my dad was that although he was going out and often reporting on people whose lives were strange or funny in some way, he always respected them and appreciated them and shined a good light on their peculiar lives or their peculiar stories, but he was never laughing at them. He was always celebrating them in some way. I think curiosity and writing is the other thing I’ve tried to write almost all of the Sunday show, and with some help from producers on the news block. For the most part, I write the show and definitely learned from my dad that if you can write, you can do anything. You can control your destiny and make sure that the words that are presented on television are the ones you want to be conveyed and that there’s nobody to blame but yourself if it goes sideways. You have that control over it.
You’ve interviewed many influential people over these people over these past five years. What’s your favorite Sunday Today interview?
It’s such a hard question because I’ve had so many people who I’ve looked up to my whole life — David Letterman, Bill Murray, Jerry Seinfeld, people like that. Dolly Parton, obviously.
I think the one I keep coming back to is Al Pacino. In my mind, growing up and watching Scarface and the Godfather movies and Scent of a Woman, an actor of that caliber lives on some other planet. The idea that he was willing to have me come out to L.A. and sit in a restaurant with him for an hour and then drive around droptop Cadillac for 45 minutes. It was mind-blowing and still is. Even hearing myself say [I was] pulling up to a red light, stopping and looking over and Al Pacino’s riding shotgun and having the time of his life and saying, “How great is this? How much fun are we having?” It’s a lot to absorb in the moment, it’s a lot to absorb in general. He just doesn’t do interviews really and and the fact that he said yes to us. This was about a year ago, and to me it was a great honor and a validation of our show that we had created a place that he had seen enough other interviews that he thought, “Okay, this would be this is the right place for me to finally sit down and talk and tell my story.” So I’m going to go with Pacino.
Who would you like to land now?
Jay-Z. He’s the one he’s the one I’m looking at. I have always loved Jay-Z, loved his music. I think he has so much to say not just about music, but about what’s happening in the country right now, and his personal story is so incredibly compelling, coming from the Marcy Projects to becoming a billionaire. I would love to talk to him.