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The Old Guard

Channel 4 news anchor Bill Stuart has spent a big chunk of his career competing directly against Ed Sardella, his opposite number at Channel 9 -- and as Stuart concedes, his own squad's fallen short more often than not. When asked if he feels as if Channel 9's long-term ratings success, particularly when it comes to its 10 p.m. newscast, is sometimes overstated by the area press, Stuart says, "No, I don't. They've done extremely well for a long time. I wouldn't disagree that they've been the dominant station in this market for 25 years."

Even so, Stuart remains a Sardella admirer, calling him "an anchor's anchor, a thinker, a perfectionist, and" -- he slips a slice of wry into his voice -- "perhaps the only guy in the news business harder to get along with than me."

Stuart's kinship with Sardella goes well beyond the sometimes gruff temperament they share. Their careers, which have run parallel to each other for so long, are winding down at the same time, and in much the same way. Note that Sardella, 63, went into semi-retirement in 2000, only to be called back to active duty earlier this year when Jim Benemann, Sardella's original heir apparent, was chosen by Channel 4 to, in essence, fill the same role in respect to Stuart. Moreover, they share an intimate understanding of the day-to-day frustrations of television work. "These jobs can be aggravating," Stuart says, "and I can imagine that after being away from that aggravation for a while, going straight back into it would be hard."

Sardella, who has kind words for Stuart, too, grants that "aggravation was part of the reason I quit," and he says there have been some "tough moments" since his return. "But the management has bent over backwards to make it work. I have no complaints, especially now that it's clear the end is in sight."

Indeed, both men are getting ready to employ exit strategies after more than a quarter-century in front of Denver-based TV cameras. Stuart, 55, recently signed a new three-year contract with Channel 4 that codifies a transition to Benemann, whose Channel 4 debut took place during the recent blackout in the Northeast; he and co-star Molly Hughes, in Manhattan to shoot promos with CBS anchor Dan Rather, offered live updates from the powerless city. When Benemann formally takes over the 10 p.m. chair on September 7, Stuart will concentrate on heading up the 5 p.m. newscast through November 2004, then put in sixteen weeks of unspecified effort during each of the next two years. "I'll do some fill-ins, some special projects," he says. "I'd like to work in a diminished capacity." After a pause for comic effect, he adds, "Perhaps that's what I have..."

Self-deprecating humor is also a Sardella staple these days; he declares his eagerness "to return to retirement parties and the old-timers' picnic." Because Channel 9 just hired Bob Kendrick, most recently with a station in Tampa, Florida, as its new anchor, he'll get the chance before long. The current plan calls for Kendrick to introduce himself to the local audience by helming the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts beginning in late October before placing the 10 p.m. program on his roster following the end of sweeps, the November ratings period. At that juncture, Sardella hopes he'll be able to make a break once and for all. "I have a five-year contract that started in 2000, and it has a work obligation to it," he says. "Depending on how long I continue to work this time, I may very well have worked off the obligation for the entire contract. That's my goal."

The weary, nostalgia-free tone of Sardella's remarks is hardly without precedent. In interviews with the Denver dailies just over three years ago, at the time of his semi-retirement announcement, he spoke frankly and critically about the very medium that had provided him with wealth and celebrity status (a contradiction he acknowledged). "I've always lobbied for what I consider journalism while understanding the necessity of some promotion and marketing," he told the Rocky Mountain News's Dusty Saunders. "Although the conflict has always been there, it's more evident today. It's a losing battle for journalism." His comments to the Denver Post's Joanne Ostrow, who likened him to Howard Beale, the mad-as-hell character from the '70s satire Network, were just as blunt. "TV news is a sales vehicle," Sardella told her. "Even management has come to a point where they don't try to hide it." He described himself as "increasingly a misfit in the industry."

If longtime colleagues were upset by his candor, Sardella says, they didn't share their annoyance with him: "If I had to take a guess, the greater surprise might have been that it was aired in public. I don't think there was any surprise at the sentiment." Had there been, he wouldn't have apologized for what, in his opinion, was an accurate depiction of a profession that's still headed in the wrong direction. "I don't know that it's significantly worse than it was," he maintains, "but I don't know that it's any better. It's just a continuing evolution; it's going down the same path."

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