Anchor in Waiting

Sportscaster Les Shapiro is rested and ready. But will TV take him back?

"I don't think there's any real TV sports journalism in this market any longer," says veteran Denver broadcaster Les Shapiro. "It's been thrown out the window. The TV stations don't care about it anymore, and evidently, the current anchors don't either, because they don't work it very hard."

Harsh words. But Shapiro, who was canned as Channel 4's number-one sportscaster in 1999 in a cost-cutting, scapegoating move, doesn't back down from them, and his remarks about local newscasts in general are just as pointed. "I'm not very fond of the way this business has gone the last four or five or six years, and I don't think it will get any better. Because the pressures from the corporate side have gotten so great, management has had to cut costs and is continuing to cut costs. That's hurting the product -- and I don't want to be affiliated with a mediocre product."

Given that, why on earth would Shapiro consider taking a job at a Denver TV station, as he admits he might do under the right circumstances? For one thing, he believes he has a lot to offer, and he's right: In comparison with the boosterish pretty boys who are currently in vogue (read: Channel 9's Tony Zarrella), he's incisive, well-informed and quick on the draw. Moreover, this Chicago native likes Denver, where he's lived since 1984. His wife and two sons feel awfully settled here, and damn it, so does he.

The majority of people in his position can't afford such sentiments; they know that if they get kicked in the teeth in one city, they'd better have some dental work done and move somewhere else. Fortunately for Shapiro, his contract with Channel 4 ran until last July, buying him valuable time. But more than six months have passed since then, leaving Shapiro feeling a sense of urgency to find a full-time position that will keep him living in the style to which he's become accustomed. And while he hasn't landed that big fish yet, he notes, "I've got a lot of poles in the water." Some examples:

· Commercials. Shapiro stars in TV ads for Boulder Toyota and radio spots for Colorado Heart Imaging, and he's talking to a prominent local jewelry firm about doing its bidding as well.

· Special projects. During the recent NHL All-Star Game weekend, Shapiro teamed up with ESPN hockey analyst John Buccigross to helm a broadcast intended to show off new technology developed by Nortel, a telecom firm. He's also in negotiations to serve as an interviewer at the hockey venue for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

· Business ventures. Tom Skerritt, an actor best known for his work in TV's Picket Fences and the film version of MASH, also happens to own the Crested Butte Brewery, and he's about to introduce a new product, Paradise Golden Ale. Shapiro, who met Skerritt through a mutual friend, will contribute to its launch by co-writing Paradise advertisements in which he'll appear with the actor and also serve as a liaison for the brewery with area liquor retailers and the media. Which, contrary to popular belief, are not one and the same.

· The Internet. Major League Baseball's official Web site, mlb.com, has hired him as its Denver correspondent; he'll put together regular reports each month and appear on an as-yet-unnamed monthly talk show scheduled for launch during spring training. He served as a consultant for a Web site to be affiliated with the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.

· Radio. Shapiro does regular fill-in work for KTLK, bringing some desperately needed wit and insight to the afternoon broadcast normally helmed by Jim Ryan and Bob Davidson. He even managed to break some news on the station in late December, when he reported that the new Broncos stadium would be called "Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium" -- and if the last word was eventually shaved off, that was hardly his fault. Nor Wellington Webb's.

· Public speaking. Shapiro has become the society scene's favorite announcer, voicing events like an auction at the upscale Beaux Arts Ball. On February 23 he'll emcee Channel 12's twentieth-birthday bash at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Shapiro, who emcees for free, doesn't want anyone to think he takes these jobs because they generate ink for him: He says he sees them simply as a way to promote good causes in a community he loves. But there's no denying that they keep him on the media's radar screen. A data search reveals that his name has appeared in the Denver dailies more often since he left Channel 4 than those of Zarrella, Channel 7's Tom Green or Marc Soicher, Shapiro's rather uninspired replacement. It ain't face time, but it ain't bad.

Other possibilities are in the offing as well, including what Shapiro refers to as a "management/ambassadorial role" with one of the area's professional sports franchises -- but he's reluctant to count on them because of the many gigs that have fallen through during the past eighteen months. (For instance, he agreed to do television play-by-play for CU-Boulder's men's and women's basketball teams and the Sky Sox, the Colorado Rockies' Triple A farm club, but because of an inability to hit advertising projections, neither deal happened.) So even though he's distressed about what he sees as the shrinking amount of time devoted to sports during most newscasts -- two to three minutes today, by his count, versus four to five in the good old days -- he's maintaining his contacts on the odd chance that a sports anchor position opens.

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