The Message

The ESPNing of America is being felt in Denver.

The style is instantly identifiable: hyperactive language, frequent pop-culture references mingled with absurdly trivial arcana, plenty of ludicrous catch phrases and a winking acknowledgement that caring about muscle-headed athletes who spout cliches like Linda Blair spews pea soup in The Exorcist is kinda silly, but what the hell?

That's the approach to television sports popularized by cable's ESPN, and its influence has spread far and wide. Fox Sports is practically an ESPN tribute channel, and many local sports anchors, inspired equally by ESPN and jokester pioneers such as Los Angeles's Fred Roggin, present segments that occupy a middle ground between information dispersal and comedy routine.

In Denver, though, it's a different story. Of the primary TV sports headliners in town, only Channel 7's Tom Green displays a noteworthy sense of humor, albeit one that's drier than the ESPN model; his peers, meanwhile, alternately specialize in blandness (Channel 2's Jim Conrad), faux-suavity (Channel 9's Tony Zarrella) and oiliness (Channel 4's Marc Soicher). As for the stations' second-tier anchors, they mainly provide competent but colorless readings of the facts. The assumption, apparently, is that Denver sports addicts are so obsessed with their teams that any effort to spice things up might provoke a riot -- or at least a flurry of channel-changing.

The exception to this rule? Channel 4's weekend anchor Vic Lombardi. When he hit the Denver airwaves in 1998, it was hard to know how to take him, what with a name that sounds like it was made up by a diehard Green Bay Packers booster and a delivery that recalled satirical sportscasts by former Saturday Night Live regular Joe Piscopo, who yapped in capital letters and exclamation points. But over the years, Lombardi's enthusiasm has proven to be contagious. He seems pathologically incapable of sitting behind a desk, preferring instead to bob and weave from a standing position beside a giant screen, talking as much with his hands as his mouth, using the script pages he holds to punctuate points that you need to know. Just as important, this wiry thirty-year-old makes it clear with each adjective he hurls that he's got this sports stuff in perspective.

"There's no sports fan more serious than me," says Lombardi, who's won eleven local Emmy awards over the years, eight of them for reporting. "But this isn't rocket science. This is a game, an outlet, an escape. It's not as important as my kid's education, and when too many people treat it that way, it grinds on me."

Although his manner of speaking makes him seem like a fast-talking New Yorker, Lombardi is actually a local boy. He was raised in north Denver by parents who immigrated to the States from the central Italian town of Villa San Michele in 1966. "I didn't speak English until I was six or seven years old," he says, but he's loved sports for as long as he can remember -- and he counts the early '80s debut of ESPN in Denver as a major event in his life.

"I'd heard of ESPN, because I had friends in Arvada and Aurora who were already getting it, and I wanted to see it -- bad. And when it finally got here, I watched it religiously. ESPN invented a whole genre of sports. I think most of us who grew up in the '80s and '90s looked at that as something new, and it's where we learned to do what we do."

After graduating from Holy Family High School, Lombardi interned at Channel 4 before enrolling at the University of Colorado. A year later, like the good Catholic boy he is, he transferred to Notre Dame, and when he wasn't taking classes, he was working for free at a nearby TV station in South Bend, Indiana.

He was subsequently hired by the outlet but moved to a station in Austin, Texas, three months later. There he got a chance to push into ever loopier areas. "We had this sports-challenge thing, where people would challenge me to do things like kick field goals off people's noses. And I was young and uninhibited. I'd do anything."

Three years later, Lombardi became the main sports anchor at a station in Phoenix. But this self-described "mama's boy" so wanted to return to Denver that when Channel 4 offered him a secondary gig in 1998, he grabbed it -- but only after being assured that he'd be able to host a Sunday-evening sports program of the sort he'd been doing in Arizona. There was a problem, however: Channel 9 had purchased the rights to do a Denver Broncos show from the NFL, and league regulations designed to protect this investment strictly prohibited the amount of game footage other stations could use in a program of their own. Thus, a sports show assembled by Channel 4 wouldn't be allowed to screen more than a minute or two of footage from the day's game -- and in Broncotown, what's the point of that? Worse, the competitive nature of Denver sports broadcasting meant that Channel 9 was watching for any violations. "They guard their contract very closely," says Channel 4 sports producer Steve Cox.

Fortunately for Channel 4, there was a loophole: Outlets can run as many highlights in the course of their regular newscasts as they wish. So producer Cox and station execs came up with the idea to fold a sports program into the late-Sunday news. The resulting effort, Super Sports Sunday, was assembled with Lombardi's specific talents in mind. "The show takes someone with a certain style," says Cox, "and Vic is a showman. But that's not to say what he's doing is shtick. This isn't an act with Vic. It's who he is. And if people think you're putting on an act, it can backfire on you."

This observation is underlined by the one Denver sportscaster who's made the leap to ESPN: Kevin Corke, a staffer at Channel 9 from 1989 until last year. During his decade in Denver, Corke worked overtime to add some zest to his sportscasts, and these efforts eventually brought him to the network's attention. But upon his arrival, he discovered that more was expected of him than zingers.

"When I got here, I found out that the higher-ups were trying to rein in the new guard. The men and women who've been here for ten years or more have been grandfathered in; they're not going to ask Chris Berman to tone it down. But they want us to dole out our doses of fun a little at a time, and to be more thoughtful in our writing."

Corke believes that local anchors in love with the ESPN way should keep such a balance in mind. "You've got to remember that you have a lot of viewers in their fifties or older who are counting on you for information on things in the area that they can't get on ESPN, and if you get too cutesy, you're not respecting them." He adds, "I was guilty of doing that sometimes, too, and I had to learn how not to do it. In the words of Clint Eastwood, 'A man's got to know his limitations.'"

Lombardi understands the restrictions imposed on him by his hometown quite well. He describes the Denver sports media environment as "very, very conservative -- probably more conservative than the next ten markets smaller than it."

Other places might be more open to Lombardi's brand of sporting theatricality, but for family reasons, he'd much prefer staying in Denver to hitting the road again. He even turned down overtures from ESPN. "A lot of the people on there anymore are kind of cookie-cutter -- like, 'You use that nickname, I'll use this one,'" he says. "But I still love their flamboyance. Sports is supposed to be entertaining, you know? That's what ESPN taught us."


In "Eyes on the Prize," the February 10 edition of this column, handicappers inside the Denver dailies predicted that both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News had an excellent chance of winning a Pulitzer (the Oscar of journalism) for breaking news and photography, respectively -- and they were right. The breaking-news Pulitzer went to Post staff writers for their "clear and balanced coverage of the student massacre," while the News photography staff was feted in breaking news photography "for its powerful collection of emotional images taken after the student shootings." (Another victor with local connections: J.R. Moehringer, whose prose during his time at the News was more purple than anything in Prince's closet, earned the feature-writing Pulitzer. Really. No kidding.)

How much did the worldwide attention generated by Columbine play into these triumphs? In a live Webcast of the April 10 announcements, Pulitzer administrator Seymour Topping denied that its omnipresence was a factor. But it's hard not to see the decision as an attempt to split the Columbine spoils, thereby maintaining equilibrium in America's last great newspaper war. Or maybe the judges were just trying to prevent mass suicides at one office or the other. Insiders describe the post-announcement mood in the two newsrooms as relatively subdued, although the News made sure Channel 4 was on hand to videotape editor John Temple's remarks to his staff, and the Post staged a big bash that evening. As for the various April 11 award articles, they may have set a world record for most uses of the word "bittersweet." Both papers are donating their $5,000 prizes to the HOPE library fund, with the Post kicking in an extra $5,000 -- perhaps to mute criticism that while the News had given cash to the cause, the Post had balked.

Not that everything is sunshine and lollipops at the Post. The paper was blocked from covering the April 8 meeting between the media and parents of slain Columbine students because of participants' anger over Chuck Green columns suggesting that library-drive supporters are asking for one handout too many. "The only thing the families have ever asked for is for people who agree with what we're doing with the library to help us," says Brian Rohrbough, a vocal critic of Jeffco sheriff John Stone whose son Daniel died in last year's attack (see page 28). "So for him to say we're running around doing this or that is ridiculous. And if the Post isn't going to hold him factually accountable, then there's no reason to talk to the Post."

In response, Post editor Glenn Guzzo says he thinks the anger of the parents "is misplaced," and promises that his reporters will keep doing "the best we can to get the best information we can."

Time was also excluded from the meeting (Rohrbough says the magazine misled parents about the article that divulged the contents of videos made by killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold), as was Channel 7, for regularly screening helicopter footage that, according to Rohrbough, shows his son lying dead on the ground. He says he and Daniel's mother, Sue Petrone, joined by their current spouses, met with Channel 7 news director Diane Mulligan, whom he describes as "the coldest person from the media I've run into yet," and asked her to stop, but she refused.

Mulligan's version of this exchange is much different. She explains that the shot to which Rorhbough objects is taken from so far away that Daniel is in no way visible. "We went through it frame by frame," she says, noting that her station hasn't shown students fleeing the school in ages, and she describes the majority of its coverage in the months following the assault as "focusing on how people are getting through this tragedy -- the courage, the bravery, and how people are putting their lives back together. And that's the case with most of our competitors, too. I don't know of another market that has reacted with as much restraint in any major tragedy as the journalists in Denver have." However, she goes on, "anytime these parents see pictures from that day, they're going to see their son, no matter what -- and as much as I understand and sympathize with what they're going through, I cannot make a blanket statement about never using aerial shots again. No matter how much we'd like to, we can't pretend that Columbine never happened."

Rohrbough doesn't buy that argument. "Diane Mulligan said she wasn't doing it for ratings, but when we said, 'Why not just show a shot of the school or the sign?' she said it wouldn't have the impact. The reality is that it is about ratings and being sensational, and it's not too much to ask all these months later for it to stop."

Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael.Roberts@westword.com.

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