By Joel Warner
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"I've never been one to want credit," says Mark Cornetta, who's scheduled to become Channel 9's president and general manager July 15. "I've liked being a part of a successful team. And feeling good about the accomplishments the team has made is what matters, not someone assigning credit or blame to me."
That's lucky, because Cornetta finds himself in something of a no-win situation thanks to the shadow cast by Roger Ogden, his predecessor. Ogden is arguably the most successful executive in modern Denver television history, and as he splits to take over as president and CEO of the broadcasting division at Gannett (the media conglomerate that owns Channel 9), the station's 10 p.m. newscast remains atop the ratings, where it's been for just short of three decades. If this streak ends anytime soon, criticism will land on Cornetta whether he did anything wrong or not -- and if it continues, observers are likely to praise the system Ogden put in place, not the man who succeeded him.
Even so, Cornetta seems less concerned with establishing a track record of his own than he does with lengthening the one established by his old boss. In his words, "failure is not an option."
A Long Island native, Cornetta earned a communications degree at St. John's University, and upon graduation took a position at an advertising agency that hyped "Van de Kamp's frozen entrees, Golden Blossom Honey and Budget Gourmet," he recalls. After eighteen months, he decided that he wanted to try sales at a media outlet, and when he didn't get any bites in the New York area, he reached out to a connection at Denver's Channel 4. The person who subsequently interviewed him was none other than Ogden, then Channel 4's GM. Ogden had started his TV career as a reporter with Channel 9 in 1968, working his way up to news director by 1981, when Channel 4 induced him to jump ship.
Cornetta was hired as an entry-level account executive in 1984. After three years, he made a lateral move to Channel 9, under the theory that he'd have a better chance of moving into management there. He was right: In 1988, he became Channel 9's national sales manager, and after a two-year stint in that position and another two as local sales manager, he was named general sales manager. Then, in 1997, Ogden came back into his life. Ogden had left Channel 4's helm in 1995 to head NBC Europe in London; after two years, he opted for a return to Channel 9, whose network affiliation switched from ABC to NBC around the time he headed overseas.
Cornetta was higher in the command chain at Channel 9 than he'd been at Channel 4, and he's had the opportunity to work closely with Ogden over the past eight years. Predictably, he's full of compliments. "I'd like to take his brain and transplant it into my head," Cornetta says, "because he spills more information in a lunch conversation than most people do in an entire year."
When it came to his most recent career switch, Ogden wasn't nearly as forthcoming, at least in public. The Denver dailies have regularly printed tributes to his greatness whether they were needed or not, and in the most recent hagiography, published in the April 2 Rocky Mountain News, he told writer Dusty Saunders that he'd turned down mid-'80s overtures to take on NBC News' presidency because "I've always considered myself a local broadcaster. I wouldn't be comfortable working outside of Denver on a full-time basis." He apparently grew more relaxed about the prospect soon thereafter. In May, Ogden accepted the Gannett gig, and while his family is staying in Denver for now, his base of operations will be Washington, D.C. This about-face opened the door for Cornetta, who says he doesn't plan any major shakeups.
"On the surface, you look at the station and say, ŒDon't screw it up. Nothing is broken.' And that's really true," he contends. "We need to continue to be on the cutting edge and innovative in our approach to reporting the news and distributing it. We're not a station that rests on its laurels. But I don't think anything culturally here needs to change. I don't look at this job as trying to fix anything. Nothing needs to be fixed."
Of course, Cornetta won't be able to simply put the station on autopilot and proceed to the nearest country club. Ogden maintained Channel 9's late-night-news lead despite a 75 percent turnover among the on-camera team: Anchor Ed Sardella retired, forecaster Mike Nelson took a better offer at Channel 7, and sports dude Tony Zarrella was disappeared following a raft of personal problems, leaving Adele Arakawa as the sole survivor. Still, imported anchor Bob Kendrick seems to be more of a place holder than a permanent solution, and Drew Soicher, Zarrella's replacement, has created an unexpected backlash among some viewers who don't like his irreverent approach. These issues could boost direct competitors such as Channel 7, whose strong performance in the 5 p.m. weekday slot will be put to the test next year when it loses Oprah, the show's mega-popular lead-in, and Channel 4, which is still waiting for its heavy investment in gear, sets and programming (including, yes, Oprah) to truly pay off.