By Joel Warner
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Appearances are important at Channel 31, Denver's Fox affiliate. For example, while a request for an interview with news director Bill Dallman, who is putting together a 9-to-10 p.m. newscast tentatively scheduled to debut in late spring or summer, is happily granted, there's a string attached: Promotion and marketing manager John O'Laughlin needs to be in on the chat as well. Not that Channel 31 higher-ups are so afraid that Dallman might say something loony ("All of our anchors will deliver the news naked," maybe, or perhaps, "On slow news days, I'll assign one of our reporters to knock over the nearest liquor store") that they've ordered O'Laughlin to watch him every single minute of every single day. Dallman is press-savvy enough to avoid committing career hara-kiri, and the folks at the station know it. But there's no harm in making sure, right?
Predictably, Dallman says nothing likely to humiliate either Channel 31 or himself (damn it!). But the presence of O'Laughlin, who in the proud tradition of publicists worldwide tends to fill the slightest conversational vacuum with rah-rahs, clearly demonstrates that this venture is as much about business as it is about news.
Like the decision-makers at Channel 2, which launches WB2day, a new Colorado-based morning program, on January 17 ("Wake-Up Call," December 23, 1999), the chief Foxes in Denver see the newscast as a way to put a local face on a station that has been defined until now by NFL football, recycled sitcoms and Ally McBeal kissing a woman on the mouth.
The popularity of such Channel 31 staples shouldn't be dismissed. During the November 1999 ratings period, The Simpsons, which airs at 5:30 p.m. weeknights, easily outdistanced all other programming, including national news roundups starring Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings (seen on Channel 9 and Channel 7, respectively), in every major demographic category, and Seinfeld reruns viewable weeknightly at 6:30 p.m. also stomped all comers across the board. ("I'm happy about that, but it kind of scares me, too," Dallman jokes.) On top of that, the station tied for the number-one slot in prime time among adults 18 to 34 years old. Still, a successful newscast can contribute even more lucre to a station than syndicated or network fare, since almost all the money it generates stays at home rather than floating away to New York or Los Angeles -- and Channel 31 types want a piece of that action.
As O'Laughlin puts it, "The station has done exceptionally well with sports and prime-time entertainment, but we've taken that as far as we can go. It's time to move to the next stage."
The investment thus far has been hefty. A sprawling, 80,000-square-foot headquarters at 100 East Speer Boulevard, ponderously dubbed the Fox-31 News and Technology Center, is nearing completion and should be ready for occupation within months; its accoutrements include twelve digital-editing suites, an 8,000-square-foot news studio, a 10,500-square-foot newsroom and, most crucial of all, covered employee parking. Fortunately, there are plenty of spaces in the lot, because Dallman's staff is expected to wind up in the range of fifty souls, not counting technical personnel.
With the exception of news operations manager Kevin Scofield, who most recently performed a similar task at an NBC station in Charlotte, North Carolina, and self-proclaimed troubleshooter Tom Martino, fresh from a noisy departure from Channel 4, where he's appeared since 1981, no other hires have been announced. But virtually every slab of TV talent who's been sacked in these parts of late is angling for a Channel 31 gig. Take Les Shapiro, formerly of Channel 4: While guest-hosting KTLK-AM's Hardcore Sports (whose regular co-star, David Treadwell, has been rumored to be a candidate for the sports-anchor position), ol' Les recently suggested that his newly acquired facial hair might fit in perfectly with that edgy Fox style.
"Edgy," of course, is a descriptive term that can apply just as well to When Animals Attack VI: Intestines on Parade as to The X-Files. For that reason, Dallman goes to great lengths to emphasize that he has a healthy respect for old-style news values ("I'm very big on investigative reporting") even though he's part of the younger generation of TV newshounds. His rise has been a rapid one; since he's just 35, how could it be otherwise? He studied broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, his hometown, and right after graduation, he landed a reporting post at a tiny station in Austin, Minnesota, the 147th largest market in the country (yes, there are some that are smaller, but not many). He soon discovered that being in front of the camera wasn't for him, for a couple of reasons. "I sucked at it," he admits. "But I also realized that as a producer, you could shape the entire half-hour or hour newscast instead of working all day to come up with something that's just a minute and a half or two minutes long." With that in mind, he moved to Minneapolis and wound up as the producer of a newscast there at age 22. That was followed by an executive-producer job in Sacramento and a news directorship at a station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that went from third place to first over the course of his four years there.