If you're tuning in for the first time, you won't know who they are, and maybe it won't matter.
All three shows have a trio of co-hosts, with Fox's Gretchen Carlson, Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade sharing time the most equally. At CNN, Ali Velshi seems to lead Kiran Chetry and Christine Romans, but that could be my male-chauvinist-pig perception (but I don't think so). At MSNBC, I was surprised to be told that Willie Geist is a co-host. He seems like a junior member of the firm.
None of the anchors is a classic "minority," but CNN uses two "outlanders." Chetry was born in Nepal to a Nepalese father and a European mother, while Velshi is a Kenyan-born Canadian of Indian descent. (Immigrants doing the jobs Americans won't do?)
"Morning Joe" (playing on host Scarborough's name, and slang for coffee - with a Starbucks paid-for logo) seats its cast at cluttered glass-topped desks, under post-industrial spotlights. The other two shows plop their people on sofas. "Joe" is the most visually daring, with a camera frequently circling the desks to good effect. "American Morning" and "Fox & Friends" use more-traditional camera angles and movement.
One distracting element shared by all three is a too-busy screen, with MSNBC junking it up the most.
Because each show has three hours to kill, each can spend a lot of time on any story, but they know that few (if any) viewers are along for the full ride, so each hour is carefully crafted.
The concept for "American Morning," according to a spokeswoman, is "All the news you need to start your day." Well, "all" is excessive, but more than the competition, yes.
In contrast to CNN's "AM" and Fox's "Friends," "Joe" presents a smattering of news, preferring to home in on politics and linked issues, such as the economy, which ties in with the network's slogan, "The Place For Politics." It's also the place to go tieless, because Joe doesn't wear one, nor do many contributors. With a majority of its paid pundits being male, the "Joe" set can look like a locker room, but at a very pricey gym catering to wonks and intellectuals.
Not surprisingly, CNN's "AM" is the least likely place to hear hosts venture an opinion or toss off a barb.
At "Joe," when a guest said that America can draw down troops in Afghanistan when locals stand up, Mika growled, "That will never happen." At Fox, Geraldo Rivera referred to murder suspect Casey Anthony as a "selfish, narcissistic, self-indulgent slut."
While still distant from a traditional newscast, "AM" comes closest, the only one of the three to use a weathercaster. All three shows use music going into and coming out of breaks, and "AM" occasionally, helpfully, posts the name of the tune on the screen. Sometimes hearing a tune you can't name drives you crazy.
Fox describes "Friends" as an "entertainment show that does news," but it's more news than entertainment, although on Tuesday it offered interviews with Alison Arngrim, who played bad-girl Nellie on "Little House on the Prairie" (she has a book out) and Jada Pinkett-Smith, promoting her ventures. Biggest surprise was Kiss' Paul Stanley in an "AM" health segment. (He has a hearing disorder.)
The blend of news and entertainment seems to work. "Friends" has double the ratings of "Joe" and triple the ratings of "AM."
Fox also has the heaviest commercial load - 40 minutes over the two days, compared with 38 for "AM" and 37 for "Joe."
Fox had the most guests - six over two days, but it's tricky separating "guests" from paid pundits. Fox uses Donald Trump every Monday, so I don't call him a "guest," but Fox says he is not a paid contributor.
"Joe" and "AM" each had four guests over two days. "Joe" uses a variety of people, and the best thing I saw over two days was Tom Brokaw asking questions and analyzing. Even in "retirement," he's a top gun. But I do not see Brokaw or former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan as guests. They are more like "visitors."
Finally, and importantly, how many news stories did each air?
All three covered the GOP candidates' debate in New Hampshire and drew identical conclusions. All three covered the NBA championships, the Tonys and Anthony Weiner. The longest and deepest chat segments are on "Joe," and also the oddest call - Scarborough being absent from the set on Monday for 10 minutes. Too much Starbucks coffee? (I know what it does to my stomach.) MSNBC says hosts get occasional breaks.
While Fox gave a fair number of headlines, the count paled next to "AM," which did the best job of presenting the greatest number of stories, even if the "stories" were little more than blurbs.
In most cases, the best way to get fast news from cable TV in the morning is to turn off the sound and read the crawl at the bottom of the screen.
Email email@example.com or call 215-854-5977. See Stu on Facebook. For recent columns: www.philly.com/Byko.
In discussing guests on morning cable news shows in his column yesterday, Stu Bykofsky declined to count Donald Trump. Fox News Channel says Trump, who appears weekly, is not a paid commentator, and therefore is a guest.