Not Kinder, Not Gentler

Channel 4's new boss wants his station to toughen up.

 Walt DeHaven, the new vice president and general manager at Channel 4, doesn't mind sprinkling his no-nonsense reputation with a little sensitivity. During an interview on September 10, he chatted quietly about two of his aunts, who died on the United Airlines flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field last year before hijackers could fly the craft into its intended target. While doing so, he admitted that he'd already had his fill of 9/11 coverage, even though his own station, like the vast majority of broadcast outlets nationwide, would be offering up a giant serving of it the next day.

"Personally, it's too much," DeHaven noted. "I think all of us in the news media decided that we were going to have this big anniversary and this big memorial, and then we were going to move on. And I hope that happens."

Likewise, DeHaven repeatedly emphasized his three children, who range in age from one to seven, when describing why he accepted the top job at Denver's CBS affiliate -- and even implied that he's no longer as professionally ambitious as he once was. "I've ridden the merry-go-round and tried to grab the brass ring," he said. "But now my priorities are different. I want to do good work -- rewarding work, with good people -- and have it be in a good place for my family."

Walt DeHaven's goal is to make Channel 4 number one.
Mark A. Manger
Walt DeHaven's goal is to make Channel 4 number one.
Walt DeHaven's goal is to make Channel 4 number one.
Mark A. Manger
Walt DeHaven's goal is to make Channel 4 number one.

Still, anyone under the impression that DeHaven is a pushover hasn't seen his eyes fire up at the mention of cross-town rivalry. Before his Channel 4 hiring, he oversaw a station in Chicago, and he noted that in comparison with the Windy City, Denver "seems very gentlemanly. It's 'May I?' and 'Excuse me.' And it seems the same way even with our own competitors. In Chicago, there's none of that. You push, and you expect to be pushed back; that's just like a handshake, a greeting. And I don't know that here in Denver, we need to be that gentlemanly. I think news is news, and we should be more aggressive.

"I feel a great sense of urgency not to defer to anybody," he added. "I want us to have the attitude of 'We are the best. We're going to be the best. We'll cover the news the best. And we're not going to back off to anyone.'"

Balls-out bluster like this hasn't been heard in ages from Channel 4, which remains stuck in second place behind Channel 9 in the late-night-news derby and has lately suffered declining viewership for local programming almost across the board. In particular, DeHaven's predecessor, Marv Rockford, who helmed the station for more than twenty years, steered clear of inflammatory public statements. But DeHaven isn't afraid to speak his mind, and his track record demonstrates that such talk generally leads to action.

A New Jersey native, DeHaven has basically spent his career working for the same company, although the names of the firm have changed: He started out at Paramount before it was acquired by Viacom, which subsequently joined forces with CBS. After getting his start as an account executive at a signal in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he quickly became a corporate go-to guy. He jokingly referred to himself as "a broadcasting nomad gallivanting across the country saving unsuspecting stations" in markets such as San Antonio, Dallas, Philadelphia and Boston.

In 2000, DeHaven's travels took him to Chicago's WBBM-TV, which was on the brink of a public-relations disaster. Instead of trying to pump up its chronically poor ratings by hiring bimbo talent and leading with reports about celebrity divorces, the station went in the other direction, focusing on hard news as delivered by a single anchor, the highly respected Carol Marin. Unfortunately, the format tanked, and DeHaven was placed in the unenviable position of having to do something about it. Most Chicago observers assumed DeHaven disembarked at WBBM with orders to put the show out of its misery ("Youth of the Nation," August 15), but he denied it.

"I didn't go into that situation thinking that I was going to blow it up," he said. "When I got there, I took a look at things. And I saw that Carol's an extraordinary journalist who was definitely onto something. But she saw where we were as where we should be, and I saw where we were as a good starting point. So we just agreed to disagree."

That's putting it mildly: Marin announced that she would be leaving WBBM mere weeks after DeHaven came aboard. Her departure, at least initially, made a bad situation worse. "When Carol left, we had one or two female anchors, but we really had no male anchors, let alone a direction to go," DeHaven pointed out.

Since Chicago is America's third-largest TV market, trailing only Los Angeles and New York City, big moolah was at stake, meaning DeHaven didn't have long to ruminate on a solution. So he plugged in whatever anchors he had available and promptly brainstormed fresh approaches. These sessions eventually gave rise to "Problem Solvers," a team-reporting concept that zeroed in on consumer issues. To DeHaven, the idea was a way of "connecting with people the way the station had always done. If you went back to the days of [former WBBM staple] Walter Jacobson, it was fighting city hall, fighting corruption, fighting some of the things that perhaps Chicago was known for in the past. And we wanted to do the same."

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