The Message

Battle Plans

For ages, seemingly, the fight for television-news viewers in Denver has been about as competitive as a bare-knuckles grudge match between Lennox Lewis and Richard Simmons.

Channel 9 hasn't come out on top of every time slot during the past decade-plus, but it's won the great majority, and usually by a hefty margin. No matter what its rivals did, whether it be to hire new talent or build new sets or invent new charitable events or air special reports that had less news value than an episode of Mr. Personality, 9News continued to dominate. No wonder that when popular anchor Jim Benemann left the station earlier this year, Channel 9 president and general manager Roger Ogden reacted with the equivalent of a casual shrug.

And why not? As Ogden noted in this space ("Weighing Anchors," April 10), the outlet has "done just fine" following the departures of high-profile talent like Ron Zappolo and Ed Greene -- and in remarks that added a smidgen of modesty to an extra helping of confidence, he displayed little doubt that the streak will continue. "I wouldn't indicate for a minute that we think it's automatic -- that we have some sort of pre-ordained right to news leadership in this community," Ogden said. "We have to make a good choice, and I know we're capable of doing it. We've done it before, and we'll do it again."

Brian Maass could be a key to Channel 4's recent 
ratings surge.
John Johnston
Brian Maass could be a key to Channel 4's recent ratings surge.

Maybe so, but even picking the right frontman might not be enough to guarantee Channel 9's supremacy for the long haul. In the recently concluded May sweeps, which largely determine advertising rates in the immediate future, Channel 4 showed the most growth by far, eating into Channel 9's lead during several key periods. At 10 p.m., Channel 4 gained two share points over last May, with Channel 9 edging up just half a point. At 6 p.m., Channel 4 held steady as Channel 9 lost a point. And at 5 p.m., Channel 4 climbed a share at a time when Channel 9 took a six-point tumble, leaving the stations in a virtual tie in the afternoon's most important local news heat. (In metro Denver, one ratings point represents 13,662 households.)

The reasons for this shift are complicated and tough to quantify, but the unevenness of Channel 9's late-April-to-late-May broadcasts likely played a role. The outlet has long excelled at timing bravura investigations to debut during sweeps months, and this time around, a Paula Woodward piece that charged outgoing Denver Mayor Wellington Webb with using personal services contracts to bust through hiring limits placed upon him by the city charter looked promising. However, the report tried to cram in too much detail, muddying the issue in the process, and Webb's lame-duck status prevented it from causing much of a stir. As such, the main news the station made in May was of the simulated sort, via a partnership agreement with the Denver Post that produces stories printed under 9News bylines that frequently do little more than rehash TV scripts from the night before. Such deals are the wave of the media future ("Let's Get Together," October 31, 2002), but for Channel 9 watchers, the articles themselves are good for little more than a severe case of déjà vu.

Even worse, numerous Channel 9 broadcasts simply felt tired. Although veteran anchor Ed Sardella, who stepped down from full-time duties several years ago but agreed to return on a fill-in basis after Benemann split, is putting up a brave front, he often seems like a prisoner counting the days until his parole hearing. After the screening of a Cheryl Preheim package about quintuplets in Bennett who graduated from high school this year, Sardella remarked that since he'd reported on the quints' birth, it was probably time for him to retire -- and while co-anchor Adele Arakawa and weatherman Mike Nelson laughed at this comment, Sardella appeared to be only partly joking. It's no surprise, then, that Channel 9's on-air chemistry of late has recalled the seasons of the Sonny and Cher Show taped after the stars divorced.

Up next: Gregg Allman with sports.

Granted, Channel 9's news programming remains fairly solid in general, and its morning block once again pummeled the competition; despite a goodbye last week from business regular Gregg Moss, who left for a variety of health-related reasons, the a.m. show seems impervious to attack. Still, the promos now airing, in which shots of 9News personalities expressing gratitude to viewers for another sweeps championship are interspersed with ratings graphics that ignore some contests and make other victories seem more resounding than they actually were, feel more relieved than celebratory.

Channel 4, in contrast, seems freshly invigorated due to developments behind the cameras as well as in front of them -- and vice president and general manager Walt DeHaven has had a lot to do with the changes in both areas. In a conversation with Westword conducted within weeks after he replaced longtimer Marv Rockford ("Not Kinder, Not Gentler," September 19, 2002), DeHaven laid out an improvement plan that called for pouring more resources into the news operation and then promoting the hell out of it. Since then, he's done precisely that, and he's eager to push things even further. "We're not resting on our laurels," he says. "We're charging and we're not going to stop. There'll be not less intensity, but more. If I were a competitor, I'd be concerned."

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