Between reading headlines and bantering with co-host Jamie Yuccas Thursday on the“WCCO Morning Show,” Jason DeRusha decided to have a snack on the air.
He choked down a raw egg.
“The egg tasted pretty good, actually. Silky, with the eggy essence you’d expect,” DeRusha said later of his bit that mimicked David Letterman’s from the night before. “Who am I kidding? It was pretty gross. But anything for the show.”
That attitude also led DeRusha to tweet passionately from Miley Cyrus’ concert and pose in downtown Minneapolis as David Caruso’s character on “CSI: Miami.” Not behavior typically exhibited by a local news anchor, but it’s a key reason why Channel 4’s morning program has grown 18 percent in total viewers since a new anchor team was installed in June — a remarkable feat considering that early risers are slow to trade allegiances.
Not only is “WCCO Morning Show” now the top-rated wake-up program in the Twin Cities, but “CBS This Morning” also has ascended to No. 1 in the Twin Cities for the first time in recent memory.
In fact, “CBS This Morning” has jumped 19 percent, making the Twin Cities the largest market in the country in which CBS is ahead of ratings heavyweights “Good Morning, America” and “Today.”
“I’m surprised there has been this much growth this quickly,” said Norah O’Donnell, who co-hosts the national show with Charlie Rose and Gayle King. “That we’re No. 1 in Minneapolis means we’re really putting points on the scoreboard.”
The evolution of “CBS This Morning” started with the 2011 hiring of executive producer Chris Licht, who had previously created “Morning Joe” for MSNBC.
In addition to recruiting veterans instead of flavor-of-the-day personalities, Licht shucked many of the staples of morning TV — live concerts, cooking segments, fashion shows — allowing time for longer feature pieces and more in-depth conversation around the set’s modest table.
The most notable omission: the chipper weatherman.
“Weather on a national show is only useful if you’ve never heard of the Weather Channel or you don’t have an Internet connection,” said WCCO’s meteorologist director, Mike Augustyniak. “When weather is in the news, they can cut to me or other local experts at CBS stations.”
Another innovation that’s been effective is the “Eye Opener,” a 90-second sizzle reel of the day’s top events that kicks off every edition. A team of editors works through the night to assemble the fast-paced segment.
“I’m a vice president for news, and their room is the only one I’m intimidated going into,” Licht said.
The WCCO team was so impressed with “Eye Opener” that it adapted its own version, “Four Things You Need to Know,” which closes out the 4:30 to 7 a.m. broadcast. WCCO also borrowed some sweeping camera shots and the idea of playing pop music underneath news reports.
“If Charlie Rose can do it, we can definitely do it,” DeRusha said. “They push the envelope by doing serious news with people who are fun. We can tap into that same thing.”
Camaraderie is hard to fake on live television, especially over the span of 180 minutes at a time of day when many of us are at our grouchiest and most pessimistic.
Either the WCCO duo has Guthrie-level acting chops or they genuinely like other.
“There are days I might come in here and be in a bad mood, but it’s over in two seconds,” said Yuccas, who usually gets to the office around 3 a.m. “I thought it might take a long time for us to figure each other out, but it was instant.”
There’s a looseness among members of the local morning team, which includes traffic reporter Natalie Nyhus, that’s not as prevalent on the competition.
On last Monday’s show, Augustyniak tried on Nyhus’ sunglasses, and DeRusha tried lifting Nyhus’ and Yuccas’ massive purses. Bad puns and gentle teasing are the rule, not the exception.
That good-natured spirit translates beyond the airwaves. DeRusha, arguably the king of Twin Cities social media, sent out more than 200 tweets last week, most of which had nothing to do with the news. If you don’t see him at a major local event, wait five minutes. He’ll be there. And Yuccas is boosting her profile by becoming one of the more in-demand emcees in the community. That kind of outreach is paying off.
“I got a tweet today from a woman who says she’s getting up a half-hour earlier now, just so she can spend more time with us,” Yuccas said. “Really? I would never do that.”
CBS gains elsewhere
Rose and the CBS crew may be a bit more strait-laced, but the format of the show — more chit-chat, less circus-like events — makes for a more intimate, personable broadcast than the other network morning programs.
“The content was there from Day 1, but the authenticity and chemistry has gotten better,” Rose said. “I like to believe that people can tell we’re having a good time.”
“CBS This Morning” still has a long way to go to be a serious player in the national race for ratings. It has less than half of the viewers that “Today” and “Good Morning, America” do in the 25 to 54 demographic so valued by advertisers.
But strides are being made here and there. Besides the success story in the Twin Cities, CBS is up 60 percent in the San Diego market and ranks No. 1 in total viewers in Salt Lake City, Memphis, Tulsa and Dayton, Ohio.
“There’s no quick fix,” Licht said. “We’re battling decades of being a distant third. All you can do is be competitive and relevant. We’re on the right track, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”