The Message

Early Shift

On March 22, after years of avoiding questions about when they would launch an early newscast, managers at Channel 31, Denver's Fox affiliate, provided their answer: the debut of Good Morning Colorado, a programming block between 5:30 and 8 a.m.. Suddenly, cable-challenged Denver viewers who'd grown accustomed to getting their first info fix of the day from Today or Good Morning America, which air here at 7 a.m. on a two-hour tape-delay basis, had live, locally produced alternatives courtesy of channels 2 and 31.

So why does Good Morning Colorado seem like more of the same? Because basically, that's what it is.

It's tough to blame the folks at Channel 31, or any of the other Denver stations in the news game, for being conservative. Today, for instance, most local news programs feature segments in which personalities stand beside or in front of giant screens. When Channel 7 introduced the technique to Denver via a mid-'90s revamp dubbed "Real Life, Real News," however, the station was satirized for not having enough money to buy come-hither anchor Natalie Pujo a chair. Granted, the newscast didn't work, but Pujo and Melissa Klinzing, Channel 7's news director, were laughed out of town more quickly than they might have been under other circumstances because they had dared to be different.

Bill Dallman, Channel 31's news director, hasn't made that mistake. He's helped Channel 31 earn a sizable chunk of the local news audience since 2000, when the outlet got into this particular game, by tinkering with the blueprint instead of tearing it up. The 9 p.m. newscast he developed differed from its competition mainly in its rapid pace and graphics designed with channel-surfers in mind. The show featured a friendly, reassuring daddy (veteran Ron Zappolo, who recently inked a new contract), a high-spirited mommy (Libby Weaver), a rakish, ne'er-do-well son (Phil Keating, now a network correspondent), a brash neighbor (self-proclaimed "troubleshooter" Tom Martino) and supporting players straight from an episode of Friends, but more multi-culti (Shaul Turner, Kim Posey, Whei Wong). Ratings-wise, they all lived happily ever after.

There's no telling if the same fate awaits Good Morning Colorado, but the show certainly displays more evidence of Dallman's casting aptitude. With her trendy spectacles and hair ready for tossing, weather deliverer Stacey Donaldson has a naughty-librarian thing going on, but in this context, she still passes for the older sister of spunky reporter Sean Cuellar, who wears chi-chi eyewear of her own. (Dallman apparently believes that plenty of guys would love to make passes at girls who wear glasses.) Reporter Ron Zwerin and news reader Tammy Vigil also exude casual hipness, as does traffic anchor Ken Clark, whose youthful appearance and bald pate give him the look of a high-level fixer at a Vegas casino. Finally, there's shaggy helicopter pilot Rob Marshall, who flies alongside a golden retriever named Dylan. The chopper, known by the comic-book-like handle SkyFOX, is so cramped that Dylan can't do anything other than lie in one spot and eat (sedative-laced?) snacks Marshall feeds him at Donaldson's urging, but that hasn't stopped Fox from rigging up a "Dylan Cam" to catch every bit of the dog's inaction. Betcha Dylan becomes the most popular figure on the show anyhow.

He won't get much competition from co-anchors Justin Farmer and Pamela Davis, who, at least initially, look to be the show's weak links -- a real problem, given that they're the stars. Farmer has the air of a student-council representative the other kids suspect of being a narc, and his attempts at humor often earn awkward responses from Davis. Her frozen smiles imply that she can't believe she's got to hang around with such a dweeb.

Good Morning Colorado's March 30 presentation showcased the lack of chemistry between Farmer and Davis, as well as an even speedier tempo than its nighttime equivalent and an obsessive focus on weather and traffic. During the half-hour beginning at 5:30 a.m., there were three separate, and lengthy, updates from Donaldson and Clark, even though the weather was utterly uneventful and the giant animated traffic map didn't have a single accident or slow-down on it. The commute would worsen as the morning wore on, and Marshall was able to zoom in on several key rough spots once he hit the skies, after 6 a.m. Yet an earthquake at the Mousetrap might not have justified the attention paid to the day's jams and bottlenecks.

Equally repetitive were live reports from Zwerin and Cuellar. Zwerin was at Fort Carson covering the return of soldiers from Iraq, but the personnel had actually arrived an hour before airtime, leaving him with no one to talk to and nothing to do but stand in front of a lone tank, narrating generic celebration footage. Regardless, the show devoted several minutes to the story during each half-hour section. Cuellar's innumerable tributes to the OnStar automotive service, which foiled a car thief the previous day, were even more superfluous; in essence, they were extended commercials. So, too, were a pair of chats with Dr. Dave Liberman, who relentlessly hyped acupuncture, one of his specialties. Being jabbed by a needle would have been a lot more fun.

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