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Why is the city giving 9News more than $500,000?

The Denver City Council's May 22 agenda overflowed with typical items -- zoning matters, leasing pacts, the designation of May 21-27 as "Public Works Week" -- but one entry qualified as mighty unusual. The paragraph described a bill calling for the approval of a one-year, $504,875 agreement between the City and County of Denver and KUSA-TV/Channel 9 "to provide a variety of services related to the 'Parents Are the Power' Initiative" -- a drug-and-alcohol-abuse prevention program promoted via public-service announcements. These spots are certainly well intended, but they also provide considerable promotional value for the station, since they frequently show 9News anchors Adele Arakawa, Bob Kendrick, Bazi Kanani and Ward Lucas in contexts that make them look good in the eyes of the community -- and they'll continue to do so for another year. The council approved the agreement during its June 5 meeting.

It's important to emphasize that money for the initiative doesn't come from taxpayer contributions. Instead, the cash is being supplied by the Daniels Fund, the brainchild of the late Bill Daniels, who made his fortune from cable television. (The Daniels Fund regularly issues grants to groups dedicated to mitigating substance abuse; the issue was important to Daniels, an alcoholic who licked his addiction following a stint at the Betty Ford Center.) According to DF spokesman Peter Droege, the fund's charter requires that awards be given only to non-profit organizations or what he calls "governmental equivalents." Hence, Denver's Office of Drug Strategies, which recently took over Parents Are the Power duties from the Denver District Attorney's Office, is fulfilling something of a middleman function.

A March executive summary provided to Councilwoman Judy Montero points out that the "City & County of Denver will serve primarily as a fiscal agent for this grant, with the greatest share of the funding being passed through to 9News." This document lists a total fund appropriation of $535,000, meaning that administrative expenses and so on will likely eat up approximately $30,000 of the sum.

Even if the government won't lose dough on this transaction, however, the Parents Are the Power deal raises questions about propriety and favoritism. Even though 9News came up with the idea for the initiative and drew together the partners that made it a reality, the city is still facilitating a hefty disbursement to a single station when general managers at other area signals say they'd be eager to participate. "It does seem strange that they've put all of their eggs in one basket," says Channel 2's Jim Zerwekh. "Any effective media buy includes multiple outlets." Channel 31's Bill Schneider echoes these sentiments: "There are a variety of media that could participate in this kind of program, including other television and radio stations."

As for Channel 7's Darrell Brown, he argues that "if the city is interested in informing the community on educational issues, like making parents better parents, it would be in their best interest, and in the Daniels Fund's best interest, to open it up to other stations. The more participation you have, the better off you'd be. It's an issue important to all of Colorado, not just the people who watch Channel 9."

While that's undeniably true, credit 9News for its expertise at creating community-service missions that provide residual benefits for the station. Its roster is led by the 9 Health Fair, an annual event that provides medical screenings to the general public; Buddy Check 9, which encourages women to do monthly breast self-examinations; and 9 Teachers Who Care, a search for inspirational educators. These offerings are heavily advertised via thirty-second announcements that are every bit as effective as more straightforward promos -- not to mention extended segments during daily newscasts that further polish the station's reputation, albeit at the cost of diminishing the amount of airtime allotted to actual news. Other area stations have emulated such undertakings, but none of their variations have been as successful as efforts like Parents Are the Power, which improves on 9News's trademark formula by letting someone else pay for it.

Channel 9 business-development manager Lorii Rabinowitz says the initiative's inspiration was Drug Free Arizona, a Maricopa County Attorney's Office venture that's affiliated with KPNX-TV, 9News's sister station in Phoenix. In 2004, after assembling ideas about how to adapt the program for Colorado, 9News personnel approached the district attorney's office in Denver, then being run by Bill Ritter, who's currently the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor of Colorado. The DA's minions liked the notion, and as discussions continued, the Daniels Fund was mentioned as a possible collaborator. Together these entities concocted a proposal that sailed through City Council in 2004 -- and why not? The plan targeted a good cause and didn't require any withdrawal from the city's bank account. Moreover, because the funds were private, the measure didn't have to be put up for bid.

Next, the principals assembled what Rabinowitz calls "an expert team that worked closely on the spots and the content of our website," which is linked on 9News.com's homepage. These assistants include staffers with the city's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division (ADAD) and folks from Urban Peak and Arapahoe House, among other establishments. "Channel 9 is not the creator of the message," notes the Daniels Fund's Droege. "From its very beginning, the Parents Are the Power campaign was really the result of a bunch of grassroots organizations involved in either drug-and-alcohol prevention or picking up the pieces of broken lives."

Also on board was Ritter, who received face time in the first batch of announcements -- and he's been succeeded by current DA Mitch Morrissey, Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper and the aforementioned 9Newsers. (The anchors' presence is appropriate, Rabinowitz feels, "because they're looked upon as leaders of the community, too.") As is typical with 9News productions, the spots are extremely well made and professional -- yet the collection is far from complete. Of more than a dozen PSAs from 2004 and 2005 that can be triggered online, not one features Arakawa or her colleagues. Rabinowitz isn't sure why that's the case, and neither can she explain the absence of any new content from 2006 with the exception of two Parents Are the Power-related segments culled from Colorado and Company, a daily hybrid of a talk show and an infomercial.

These hints of neglect don't render the site useless. Indeed, there's a great deal of information available on the topics of prevention, intervention and treatment. Not all of the content is original -- several "sample conversations" are products of another website, TheAntiDrug.com -- and a lot of the interview footage is recycled from one announcement to another. Even so, the address presents plenty of resources for parents at their wit's end, as was noted in an evaluation of the program's effectiveness in 2005 by JVA Consulting. Such folks aren't checking out the site in overwhelming numbers; visits only increased from 2,509 in April to 4,590 in November despite the airing of 241 PSAs during a period slightly longer than that span. Moreover, JVA described attendance at two community meetings and an online chat as "lower than expected." But the study concluded that the campaign is "an ideal venue for reaching out to parents to promote attitude change about teen alcohol and drug use, and subsequent behavior change in how they parent their children."

Consequently, the Daniels Fund is investing in the initiative for another year, and spokesman Droege offers copious compliments to 9News -- although he stops short of pledging to stick with the station forever. "With the limited pool of resources, we always have to look at what's the most effective way to reach the maximum number of parents," he says.

Rabinowitz hopes to broaden the program's scope through additional "community outreach sessions," and she's got the support of Channel 9 general manager Mark Cornetta, who insists that the goal of the program is "to educate people, not to promote 9News. We have enough airtime to promote our talent, so that's not part of our campaign."

Guess it's just a happy side effect.

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