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Is Channel 9 successful because of its people or its system?

A report about the contract status of Channel 9 anchor Jim Benemann didn't wind up in Rocky Mountain News gossip specialist Penny Parker's February 27 column by accident. Negotiations had obviously hit a bump the size of Mt. Evans, and one party or another saw an advantage in letting the public know about it by planting an item.

What happened next -- Benemann went from being a valued part of the 9News team to the anchor-in-waiting at rival Channel 4 -- happened quickly. On March 21, the day Channel 4 issued press releases announcing the Benemann acquisition, Big Jim was promptly relieved of his Channel 9 duties. During the weekend that followed, Channel 9 broadcast a promo featuring Benemann on at least one occasion -- an indication that the rest of the staff was scrambling to catch up with the swiftly moving developments.

Details about the contract talks at Channel 9 are tough to come by; neither Benemann nor Roger Ogden, the station's president and general manager, offers to share. What's clear, though, is that Channel 9 was unwilling to get into a bidding war over Benemann even if the result of inaction would be his jump to the market's next-strongest contender. In this respect, the situation can't help but recall the decisions of other high-profile Channel 9 figures to sign up with former adversaries -- most prominently, weatherman Ed Greene, who also inked with Channel 4, plus sportscaster Ron Zappolo and lead reporter Phil Keating, both now news anchors for Channel 31.

Yet despite the talent drain, which was exacerbated by the semi-retirement a few years back of longtimer Ed Sardella (he's currently filling Benemann's seat on a temporary basis), Channel 9 remains the ratings champ in virtually every significant time period, as has been the case for years. Granted, its lead in some slots narrowed during the recent February sweeps, but the numbers offer few clues about an impending popularity collapse. Because no such evidence followed the departures of Greene, Zappolo or Keating, either, Ogden can be forgiven for thinking that the faces in front of the cameras at his outlet aren't nearly as important as they're thought to be elsewhere. Such a belief would offer him a tremendous advantage when it comes to dealing with future staffers who want hefty raises. Simply put, he could tell any anchor or reporter who won't kowtow salary-wise to hit the highway, knowing that viewers will keep watching -- no matter who's delivering the news.

While Ogden is far too smart an operator to confirm this theory directly, many of his comments lend credence to it. He concedes that personalities "are a major component of how people make choices; it's certainly a big piece of the equation." However, he goes on, "there are many, many other pieces that people focus on when they make choices. Some of it is history and credibility. Some of it is chemistry. Some of it is the organization's involvement in the community with events like the 9Health Fair [which runs through April 19]. And this station has had a very long, rich history of doing these other things very well."

In addition, Channel 9 boasts a strong track record of recruiting staffers who, after a few years, other stations want to steal. A prime example is weathercaster Kathy Sabine. "When Ed Greene moved back to Channel 4, Kathy took over, and our morning show is stronger than it's ever been," Ogden says. "It's generally number one or two in the country."

What Ogden doesn't mention, but Benemann does, is that when Sabine's contract came up for renewal a while back, Channel 9 fought to keep her. "She was wooed strongly by several other stations in the market, and they figured out a way for Kathy to remain," he says. "And I think they were extremely nervous when they lost some other people -- for instance, Ed Sardella. But I was able to come in, and we made a very deliberate transition, and the station continued to do well."

That Benemann would emphasize the role of talent in a station's success is only natural -- and he's got a fat new contract with Channel 4 with which to bolster his argument. "I certainly would not want to imply that Channel 9 was disinterested as to whether I stayed or left," he notes. "It's just that Channel 4 made a long-term commitment, which is something Channel 9 wasn't willing to do. My wife and I have four children -- they're nineteen, seventeen, eleven and eight -- and we've moved with our family on a few occasions. That gets harder and harder. So when CBS and [Channel 4 vice president and general manager] Walt DeHaven said we can make it so there's a guarantee you wouldn't have to move for several years, that was music to our ears."

Benemann can't start work at Channel 4 immediately because of a standard six-month no-compete clause in his Channel 9 contract, which doesn't officially end until April 14. Clauses like this one probably wouldn't survive a court challenge, but the vast majority of stations see them as advantageous because of the way they limit raids from competitors. For this reason, Benemann says discussions are under way to shorten the span during which he must sit on the sidelines by mutual agreement, not lawsuit.

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