Not Kinder, Not Gentler

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

Things didn't work out quite that neatly. "People who loved it loved it, but people who hated it hated it," DeHaven said. "And it was one of those lightning rods where critics would say, 'This is ridiculous. This is pandering.' But it wasn't. It was us trying to reach out to the people who actually watch and ask, 'What resonates with you? What strikes a chord?' And it taught us a lot, not only about Problem Solvers, but about the types of stories we were doing when we were enterprising above and beyond the news of the day. So we took a lot of grief for it along the way, but I think it worked out well in the end."

The same can't be said for DeHaven's tenure at WBBM. Earlier this year, he persuaded Antonio Mora, the news reader for Good Morning America, to relocate to Chicago -- a potentially positive development. But before he could reap the fruits of this success, Dennis Swanson, who'd recently been named chief operating officer of Viacom's television-station group, decided that Joe Ahern, a close colleague for many years, should become WBBM's monarch. DeHaven didn't bother spinning this version of events: "I told the people here, 'I left Chicago because they asked me to.' There's no way to dance around that. We had new management, and they wanted their own guy. But the company was gracious enough to give me some different options of things that I wanted to do, and the thing that interested me most was coming to Denver."

Channel 4 certainly isn't in as sorry a situation as was WBBM when DeHaven was sent there, as he acknowledged. "On any given day, you see the type of thoughtful reporting that we do, and I think those are big strengths," he said, singling out investigative reporter Brian Maass for praise. "And I think our weather coverage is very good; we have very trusted weathercasters and do a good job with it."

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.

On the other side of the coin, he conceded, "We need to work on doing better TV. We're in an age when people are barraged with hundreds of different options, and if we don't package our news in a way that's fascinating, that's visually stimulating, that has writing that's concise, and where we move from story to story in a way that makes you feel you're getting the information you need, some viewers may not tune us in. And that's an area we can always do better in."

To get the word out, DeHaven plans to place a greater emphasis on marketing via promotion on Channel 4, cable channels, radio, the print media and billboards, as well as through charity events. He's also big on partnerships with organizations such as the Rocky Mountain News and Univision-owned KCEC/Channel 50, which the station inked a pact with a few months before DeHaven came to Denver. As part of the deal, Channel 4 is sharing assorted resources and footage with Channel 50 in exchange for inroads to an audience that's growing in importance. The popularity of most English-language newscasts is falling, especially among the younger viewers whom advertisers covet, but the number of folks glued to Spanish-oriented outlets is on the rise.

According to DeHaven, "The partnership that we're developing -- and 'developing' is the right word -- lets us tie into Spanish-speaking viewers so they can get a better sense of who we are, and it conversely allows Univision to move into more of a general market. Now, at some point, will we be at odds with each other? If we're successful, we will. Maybe five years from now, we'll look at each other and say, 'You're annoying me; I'm annoying you. Let's get out of here.' But right now, they have good access into our newsroom and to our community, and we have good access into their newsroom and their community, and that will give both of us a better understanding of the people we're trying to reach."

As for changes in on-air personalities, DeHaven suggested that more people would be coming -- like, for instance, new weekend anchor Tony Lopez -- than going. Rumors that main anchor Bill Stuart, who survived one attempted ouster in 1999 and is reportedly considering retirement, may get the boot are unlikely to be quelled by one of DeHaven's comments: "There are people here who anchor and report with us who have been doing it for a long time and may want to go off and do something else, but that won't be our doing." However, he emphasized that "I don't like to make change for the sake of change. In Chicago, the change was made because I had no choice. We were in a dog fight that was swirling around us, and the change was reactive to it. But here we're in a fantastic situation. We do really good work, and there's an opportunity to do better work."

Clearly, DeHaven won't be satisfied with being the bridesmaid of Denver TV news. "Channel 9's product is very consistent," he said. "You know exactly what you're going to get. And if you're a viewer who watches Channel 9, why would you change? But I absolutely see vulnerabilities there. I'm just not going to tell you what they are."

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