The Message

7th Hell

Channel 7 once loomed over the area's television landscape like a colossus, but that was before a lot of people reading this newspaper were born. The station's 22-year reign as Denver's preeminent outlet ended around the time Gerald Ford lost the presidency, and since then, a parade of general managers have been unable to bring back the glory days of Bob Palmer, Starr Yelland and Warren Chandler -- names that mean about as much to today's TV viewers as those of the onetime rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

So why is Channel 7 vice president and general manager Darrell Brown so optimistic? For one thing, he's spent his career as a salesman of sorts, so framing information in glass-half-full terms comes naturally. But he genuinely relishes the challenge set before him. "I love being an underdog," he says, "and I know that if you put the viewer first, move ahead with meaningful projects and promote them properly, tastefully, viewers will come to you."

The ongoing May sweeps will test this theory, and data from the month's first half indicates that the station's 5 p.m. newscast stands a good chance of repeating its performance in the February survey, when the show took the top spot for the first time in eleven years. This victory hasn't earned the outlet many props, however. The Denver dailies didn't ballyhoo the achievement to the degree Channel 7 might have hoped, presumably because the program benefits from following Oprah Winfrey's mega-popular series, which will move to Channel 4 next year. And when Channel 7 decided to salute itself with promos declaring that anchors Anne Trujillo and Mike Landess, supplemented by forecaster Mike Nelson and sportsman Lionel Bienvenu, constituted the city's number-one "evening" news team, Denver Post columnist Dick Kreck chided the PR staff for spinning.

In response, Linda Bayley, Channel 7's director of brand development, maintains that TV insiders have always slapped the "evening" label on the 5 p.m. production, and Brown notes that "we've had Oprah since 1984, and we still weren't coming in first with that newscast." Since he arrived at the station in late 2003, he says, "one issue has been, how do you react when you have a downcast station that does a good job? So when we won, I was excited for the employees. They could see their hard work finally paying off."

Granted, Channel 7's other information programming didn't experience a stunning popularity surge. Aside from an improved, second-place finish at 6 p.m., the station's newscast trailed channels 9 and 4 in the marquee 10 p.m. contest and other key races during the February sweeps, and that's unlikely to change dramatically this month. But Brown thinks the quality of Channel 7's newscasts, which he believes stack up well against the competition, is helping to level the field. "We've taken the station back to a neutral position, which is great," he says. "You can build off that."

The forty-something Brown is a team player, having worked for Channel 7's owner, McGraw-Hill, for most of his adult life. A native of Alberta, Canada, he's a practicing Mormon who completed a two-year LDS mission in Chile, where he became fluent in Spanish, and attended business school at Brigham Young University. Upon graduation, he took a position at Harrington, Righter and Parsons, a firm that represented numerous McGraw-Hill stations. In 1983 he was hired at KGTV, McGraw-Hill's San Diego property, and in his twenty years there climbed from account exec to general manager.

During Brown's tenure, KGTV remained at or near the ratings summit, while his Channel 7 counterparts were stuck in muck that was thickened substantially by "Real Life, Real News," a mid-'90s format that doomed former general manager John Proffitt. Although the approach utilized numerous techniques that are commonplace today, such as anchors standing in front of oversized screens, its show-bizzy anchor, Natalie Pujo, became a local laughingstock, and the already low Nielsens plummeted even further. Brown, who believes "Real News" was "beautifully executed but terribly researched," compliments Proffitt's successor, Cindy Velasquez, for repairing the station's damaged credibility. Nevertheless, she couldn't right the ship ratings-wise.

When McGraw-Hill higher-ups tapped Brown to assume Channel 7's captaincy, he was wary: "If you go to a station that needs help and you can't help it, what does that say about you?" he asks. Fortunately, McGraw-Hill provided him with plenty of resources, and he's put them to use. After research showed that weather forecasts are a Colorado newscast's most popular element, he convinced veteran prognosticator Nelson to abandon his cushy post at Channel 9 for Browner pastures. To further emphasize Channel 7's climactic commitment, he launched Channel 247, a full-time weather destination on Comcast digital cable, and he's trying to further extend the brand through partnerships with radio stations such as KOSI, Alice, KEZW, the Mountain and KBNO. And in March he helped launch Azteca America -- an extension of Mexico's popular TV Azteca network -- which occupies Channel 51 on Comcast in Denver and is available from Fort Collins to Pueblo. A regular Azteca America newscast originating from Channel 7's studios is expected to debut next year.

Ancillary projects won't boost Channel 7's ratings, but Brown feels they pay dividends in other ways. "What we tend to preach to our employees is that we're not a TV station," he says. "We're providers of content: news, information and entertainment. Consumers have a lot of options, so we need to supply content in whatever format they want to get it in."

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