Morning-News Battle Means CBS Saturday Trio Doesn’t Get Weekends Off

Brian Steinberg
·5-min read

This Saturday-morning news show is supposed to look like the ones that precede it Monday through Friday. It doesn’t.

Co-anchor Jeff Glor isn’t wearing a tie and his colleagues, Michelle Miller and Dana Jacobson, often join him in a weekend outing that seems cut from different cloth than the weekday version to which it is tied. Brian Applegate, executive producer of CBS This Morning: Saturday,” sees no need to stitch everything together.

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“What I really want to do is continue down the path of identifying this show as a unique broadcast that is unlike anything else at CBS News,’ says Applegate, in a recent interview. After years of being promoted lockstep on social media with the weekday program, he says, CBS News is set to launch a distinct social campaign for its Saturday effort.

CBS This Morning: Saturday” takes viewers away from the typical morning-show grind by spotlighting authors, restaurateurs, and musicians, and sends the show’s three correspondents out of the studio to create colorful news features that might get seven minutes of airtime — or more. Visiting musicians get to play three songs and often have a bigger story to discuss. The show looks more like something akin to “Sunday Morning,” the CBS News mainstay that delivers nearly 6 million viewers by focusing on magazine-style reportage.

The Saturday show is not at those levels — it lags its rivals — but it has made progress. In recent weeks, it has come within less than 300,000 viewers of NBC’s Saturday “Today,” according to Nielsen.

And it has notched audience gains during a tough year, even as Miller grappled with coronavirus and Glor held forth from a studio in Manhattan’s Ed Sullivan Theater, the home of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” Overall viewership increased 3.6% in 2020 to 2.02 million viewers, according to Nielsen. The audience for Saturday “Today” fell 8% in the same time period, to 2.47 million, while the crowd for ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Saturday fell less than 1%, to 3.17 million. On January 25, the CBS show won more viewers than the Saturday broadcast of “Today” — the first time it has accomplished that feat since debuting in 2012. All three of the shows saw 2020 declines, however, in viewership among people between 25 and 54, a key audience metric that determines how much advertisers pay to run commercials in news programming.

On one recent broadcast, Miller visited with a young entrepreneur who left the life of a fine-dining chef to open his own restaurant in Harlem, and the show took viewers deep under the ocean near Japan and to the streets of New Orleans. The three co-anchors put as much emphasis on delivering features as they do on hosting, says Miller. “The three of us are out there hustling,” she says — a core element that lends the show energy.

Weekend mornings have in recent months become a time of growing competition among TV networks. ABC News in 2019 expanded its Saturday broadcast of “Good Morning America” to two hours, doubling its length and lining it up to start at 8 a.m. on 100 stations — a time when more weekend viewers are apt to tune in. Meanwhile, NBC News recently moved its Saturday “Today” broadcast to Washington, where the show’s two co-anchors, Kristen Welker and Peter Alexander, share the title of chief White House correspondent.

CBS News’ Applegate says more of the network’s affiliates have started to run the CBS show “in cycle” or at 7 a.m., rather than at other times, which may help boost the program’s overall viewership.

No member of the CBS Saturday trio could have envisioned themselves in this role at earlier career points. Miller has been known for her reporting on culture and social justice issues. Jacobson is a former sports anchor who did everything from filling in for Mike Golic on ESPN radio broadcasts to leading broadcasts of “SportsCenter” and “Cold Pizza.” Now they are all tacking stories they might not have at previous moments. During her tenure, for instance, Jacobson has examined everything from a “cheese boot camp” to technological advances in bells.

“We all have our areas, but I think we push each other to go in directions we would not have normally,” Jacobson says, noting the three hosts often compete with one another. “You watch a story one of us does and say, ‘Damn, that was good, I need to up my game,’”

It’s Glor, however, who may have found himself in the most unique circumstances. He was removed from the “CBS Evening News” anchor chair in 2019 by CBS News President Susan Zirinsky when she took the reins at the company, and offered him the Saturday A.M role. He has thrived nonetheless. Glor, soft-spoken, says his decision to come to the Saturday-morning program was bolstered by his long history with Applegate, whom he has known since they both worked together in salad days at Syracuse’s WSTM.

The move was an unusual one. Most anchors part ways with networks that make those sorts of decisions, But people who have worked with Glor say he has proven resilient time and again, letting his work speak for itself during stints at CBSN, the company’s streaming-video hub, “60 Minutes Sports” and “The Early Show.”

Glor “keeps pivoting,” says Miller. “I will always go back to Winston Churchill. One of my favorite quotes is ‘Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.’”

As the nation emerges from coronavirus, Applegate hopes the show will also keep marching forward, with more travel and bigger stories. “We found our audience is really rewarding us with watching longer-form television,” he says. “We are just trying to build an audience, not lose an audience.”

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