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Steve Grund may be the news director at Channel 2, but a big part of his approach is pure show business. And why not? News is an important profit center for stations, and those profits go up, up, up when more people tune in, just as they do with entertainment programming. Getting the details right is important, sure, but so is getting butts into those recliners.
Hence, Grund doesn't shy away from mentioning his background (he studied acting at Juilliard), and he slips easily into show-biz patter. While speaking about WB2day, the new 6-to-9 a.m., Monday-through-Friday info block he's readying for a January 17 debut, he says that he didn't so much hire people as "cast" them.
Likewise, he describes his conception of the station's latest offering using terms that are considerably more flamboyant than, for instance, "news value." As he puts it, "I want WB2day to really reflect Colorado mornings. Diamond. Crystal. Crisp. Open. A gosh-it's-really-great-to-live-here kind of feeling. And I also want it to be a community platform. If we talk about a great lasagne recipe, I hope after the show we get a call from some lady in an Italian restaurant who tells us, 'I make a better lasagna than that.' And we'll say, 'Great. Come on over and do it.'"
The investment being made in WB2day by Tribune Broadcasting, the company that owns Channel 2, is significant: Approximately $3 million has been allotted for new sets, new graphics and new music that will also be used for the 9 p.m. newscast, as well as a whopping 33 new "cast members" headed up by Jeff Peterson, formerly with Tribune-owned WGNO-TV in New Orleans, and Laura Thornquist, most recently employed by Billings, Montana's KTVQ-TV. Peterson and Thornquist will co-anchor the program, with weekend weathercaster/reporter Amy Freeze handling forecasting duties and Jonathan Steele of KOSI-FM (another Tribune asset) dishing out traffic data from inside a fixed-wing aircraft circling the city. At this point, there are no plans to have a full-time sportscaster on duty, but Grund isn't closing off any options. After all, he's planning to launch an as-yet-unnamed 11 a.m. weekday news show on March 27, just over two months after WB2day bows, and he's not sure who'll be sitting at the anchor desk for that one.
"As we get closer to it starting, we'll sit back and say, 'How are things in the morning going? Did we plan right? Do we need to get more people?' And then we'll decide."
These moves are being made in response to the new economic realities facing independent TV outlets. "Stations like ours have had to redefine themselves over the past ten years," Grund says, "because we've seen the staples of independent television go to cable. Go back ten years and prime-time movies were generating giant numbers at Channel 2, but that's all on cable now. Same with sports: When the Colorado Rockies first started out, they needed us, but now they're on Fox Sports Rocky Mountain. And kids' programming is all going to places like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, where the packaging and pricing is much friendlier."
This last comment is something of an exaggeration: Channel 2 is an affiliate of the WB (hence the WB2day moniker), which currently airs the hottest children's program in the galaxy, Pokémon. Next month, in fact, WB2day will swallow up Pokémon's 7 a.m. time slot, thereby forcing children throughout the area to actually speak to their parents prior to school.
Still, Grund knows that even Pokémon won't last forever, leaving stations like his to look for other types of programming. "What will be left that we can do that cable can't do?" he asks. "Localism -- and that means news."
Grund doesn't have to look far for a.m. role models. Chicago's WGN, Tribune's flagship TV property, and KTLA, the company's Los Angeles possession, have achieved strong financial results from morning shows launched this decade, with KTLA's ratings frequently beating those earned by network programs such as Today and Good Morning America.
"God smiled on KTLA," Grund says. "I'm not trying to be funny here, but every tragedy in the world has happened in Southern California since they launched in the morning: earthquakes, fires, O.J., Rodney King. There were so many reasons to watch morning TV in L.A., and KTLA was the only game in town -- and they went through the roof.
"Now, I don't want to wish tragedy on Denver," Grund insists, "but there's something to say for being able to have a local focus all morning, instead of just at the top and the bottom of each hour. It'll be interesting to see how the other stations will react."
At this point, Channel 2's competitors don't have a lot of wiggle room. KDVR-TV/Channel 31, the Fox affiliate, is gearing up to introduce a 9 p.m. newscast to compete directly against Channel 2 (Grund claims to be looking forward to the challenge) and has just announced its first hire, "troubleshooter" Tom Martino, who recently left Channel 4 amid self-righteous accusations that the station had tied his hands. Because Channel 31's news operation won't be up and running until springtime at the earliest, however, a local morning show is a long ways off.