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The Joy of Sets

In late October, as the Overland fire was scorching hundreds of acres in Boulder County, several Channel 4 executives gathered in the office of news director Angie Kucharski to watch the five o'clock newscast. For the most part, they were impressed with the presentation -- until, that is, the monitor was bisected by what vice president and general manager Walt DeHaven laughingly characterizes as "the tongue of fire."

That's a pretty apt description. The program featured a vertically split screen, with footage of different blazes to the left and right. Usually the equivalent of a line divides images like these, but they were separated in this case by a flickering band of flame. The conflagration startled DeHaven, and not in a good way. "We said, 'Oh, no. Where'd that tongue of fire come from?'" he recalls.

In many ways, this negative reaction is surprising. Sure, the prancing pyre was silly, and so distracting that the average viewer probably didn't register any of the fire-update factoids anchor Molly Hughes was dispensing. Yet it was also a flashy technical feat of the sort that television broadcasts have gorged on in recent years. From the fluttering cyber-flags that are a trademark of Fox News to promotions shown during NFL games on CBS in which actors like Joe Pantoliano seem to materialize from the middle of the field, visual accents are all over television these days. The reason is obvious: Decision-makers think such gewgaws prevent TV watchers with underdeveloped attention spans from prematurely stroking their clickers.

The 4 corps: Jim Hayek, Krista Brunson and Ed 
Cushing have designs on TV news.
Brett Amole
The 4 corps: Jim Hayek, Krista Brunson and Ed Cushing have designs on TV news.

Despite the fact that Channel 4 is a CBS affiliate, DeHaven feels differently, and so, too, do the folks he's gathered around him since arriving at the station in 2002. After the execs were licked by the tongue last month, DeHaven remembers "somebody in the room saying, 'We've got to take the gee-whiz out of this. We don't want to stifle our people, but we want to stick to the things that work with what we're trying to do. And nowhere in there does the tongue of fire fit.'"

Instead, DeHaven wants a newscast that's "very big but very clean," and Viacom, CBS's parent company, was willing to foot the bill to make his vision come alive. All told, DeHaven says, around $2 million has been spent to date on "presentation values that go into the news." This process, which led to wholesale alterations in sets and graphics that debuted in early September, reveals plenty about how TV pros go about luring potential customers into their tent.

"To us, aesthetics are secondary," DeHaven insists, "but aesthetics absolutely count. Ultimately, it's a television show, and we want people to watch." He's confident that enough of them will tune in over the coming months to boost Channel 4, which trails Channel 9 in most high-profile time slots, into the position of Denver's news-ratings leader. To him, "That's a big economic incentive on the upside, because there's an opportunity to win."

With this goal in mind, DeHaven assembled a three-person squad charged with doing for Channel 4 what the Fab 5 does for clueless heterosexual men on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: bring the station into the 21st century and infuse it with some panache. Each member of the chosen trio hails from a major media center. As design director, DeHaven tabbed Jim Hayek, who'd served the same function at KCBS in Los Angeles and was previously at the now-defunct Pittard Sullivan, a high-powered L.A. design outfit. For creative- services director, he picked Ed Cushing, who worked at KPIX, a CBS-owned and -operated station in San Francisco, for eight years. And to fill the assistant news director/production role, he hired Krista Brunson, just as he did when he went to Chicago's WBBM in 2000.

WBBM has arguably been CBS's biggest underachiever for over a decade, and DeHaven was brought aboard at a particularly low moment; a hard-news format starring Carol Marin was supposed to reverse the outlet's ratings tumble but wound up doing nothing of the sort. When Marin departed, DeHaven asked Brunson to clear the slate by helping to remake the station's look. According to her, the task was much more difficult than the one she was asked to tackle at Channel 4.

"They had a ton of work to do," she says. "They really needed viewers, so we thought, 'Let's have a set that at least looks nice.' But that wasn't the thought process here. We already had a really solid TV station in Denver; in Chicago, we didn't. So we were able to do it here in a way that really made sense."

Money may have been an object along the way, but it was seldom an obstacle. Rather than rush into wholesale changes, Hayek, Cushing and Brunson took the time to gather background information. A study was conducted, in which the participants were asked to watch Channel 4 for two weeks and then give their opinions about every aspect of the newscasts. DeHaven says most of them disliked "the clubby feel of our old set. You wouldn't be surprised if you walked into somebody's basement and saw it there. Like, ŒHey, Bill Stuart, what are you doing in my basement?' They didn't get an expansive feeling from it."

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