Sean Dowling, one of the hosts of Eye Opener, is doing a report that mentions discount fashion retailer H&M when he points out that he's wearing an H&M jacket -- which goes well with his T-shirt, jeans and boots. He's joined by Danielle Vollmar, who's wearing dressy shorts that show off long legs, and Oliver Tull, whose shirttail is out.
This is the aesthetic of Eye Opener: While other morning-TV shows feature suit-clad male anchors and female anchors who look like they're headed to a nice party after the newscast, Eye Opener, which also features news anchor Nerissa Knight, is going for a more informal, occasionally zany style targeting younger viewers who don't necessarily watch television on their TVs but on their laptops, tablets and smartphones.
"Historically, TV has always been this thing that's been created by a monolith out of your sight," says Tull. "There's this box, and gnomes assemble a show, and you don't know how it comes together. I think it's good that this show looks like we made it. It looks like the kind of show we'd put together. It's not this amorphous, homogenized, mass-produced box that can fit anywhere."
If you haven't heard of Eye Opener, it's a morning show that airs from 5-8 a.m. Monday-Friday on KDAF/Channel 33, and is shot in the KDAF studios in west Dallas. It also airs in Houston, Miami, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. Although there is some local content -- news, weather, headlines -- in each market, the show has its eye on being a national show and Tribune Broadcasting hopes to expand it into other cities. And it's trying to be the morning show that's not like other morning shows.
"There's a character of the 'news guy' and he sounds a certain way and he looks a certain way," Tull says of other shows. "But you don't need the same guy doing the news on every channel in every city, but that's the way people think they have to do it, so it's hard to break out of that mold."
Tull, a member of the popular Fort Worth improv comedy troupe Four Day Weekend for 13 years, says he believes that more people will find the show, whether it is through word of mouth or through its active presence on Twitter and Facebook. He likens it to an independent movie that becomes a sleeper hit. "It just takes time," he says.
Eye Opener got its start in Chicago, where it filmed in the basement of the Tribune Building. Dowling has been with the show since the beginning, when it did some test-marketing in Chicago and Houston. "It was very low budget," Dowling says. "I'd say some of the [other] early bumps were testing segments to see what sticks, throwing stuff at the wall to see what's good."
When the show relocated to Dallas in the fall, Dowling came along. Vollmar, who had been doing weather in Oklahoma City, joined shortly after the show's Oct. 31 DFW debut. The other original hosts, Ellen Fox and Douglas Caballero, lasted only till March, which is when Tull and Knight -- both already in DFW -- joined. Tull says he was surprised at the ease with which everyone clicked, and that ease shows when all four are interviewed at once, completing one another's sentences.
They all agree on what they think is the best thing about the show.
"We're not talking heads," Vollmar says. "We each have our own personality and it all kind of meshes together to make a whole Eye Opener family. When I did nights, they never let you have a personality."
Knight adds that she had been told to "be herself" at other stations. "But this is the first time I've ever felt that when they say 'be yourself,' they really, truly mean it," says Knight, who was an anchor-reporter at DFW's KTVT/Channel 11. "They mean, 'Be Nerissa,' not that person that you see on a billboard."
Most of the main cast arrives at the studio around 3, although Tull, whose job is to riff on what the others do, might arrive a little later. "Don't be fooled," Dowling says, "the show is called Eye Opener, but there's a lot of Clear Eyes involved. One Eye Open doesn't really fit."
Each writes scripts for their segments, but sometimes what they do is a shoot-from-the-hip reaction to a co-host's segment. "I kind of listen to everyone, and then I add to it," Vollmar says. "I don't like to read everything ahead of time. We do a segment called 'Hot off the Web,' and I have so much fun with it, because [Sean] reads a story, and I hear it the first time on TV and do my natural reaction, which is unfiltered."
In the DFW morning-TV race, Eye Opener has been running a distant fifth out of five morning shows. But the cast will tell you that those ratings matter less because they're playing on a different field than the others, with their youthful outlook and more national focus. Still, they'll tell you that they expect those ratings to get better.
"I think we're the little engine that could," says Knight. "A lot of people just don't know it yet. We're the tortoise. They need to watch out for us. They may be the hare, but we're coming up on 'em."