Downturn

Business news is falling on local TV.

For most of the past three years, Wayne Herman led a double life. Weekdays from 4 to 7 a.m., he could be found at Channel 4, where he presented business headlines and related stories in a smooth style honed during nearly a quarter-century in broadcasting. Afterward, he headed to an office in the Highlands Ranch area and peddled real estate under the auspices of Re/Max Alliance. Then, a few weeks ago, he was asked to become the managing broker at Re/Max's Lone Tree branch -- a position that would require him to oversee more than forty employees. The new job's responsibilities forced him to choose between TV business and the genuine item, and he chose the latter. "It was too good an opportunity to pass up," Herman says.

A similar situation recently presented itself to Gregg Moss, who began handling business matters for Channel 9 in 1993. This past summer, he became a partner in Custom Publishing, an arm of Wiesner Publishing, and cut back his 9News appearances to Wednesday and Friday mornings, when he oversees two of his signature franchises, "Gadget Day" and "Where in the Town Is Gregg Moss?" Neither of these bits qualify as traditional business reporting, as he acknowledges: "They're very feature-y, so as not to be a conflict with what I'm doing on the business side in the real world."

As these incidents demonstrate, business news isn't a growth industry in Denver television. Indeed, now that Herman and Moss have stepped away from their daily TV duties, none of the stations in town have a full-time reporter or staff member dedicated to business. The closest equivalents are consumer specialists such as Channel 7's Bill Clarke and Channel 31's Tom Martino, who concentrate on matters like whether a vacuum sucks sufficiently rather than on mergers, acquisitions and sundry corporate doings. And while executives who oversee news operations at each Denver signal stress their continuing commitment to business coverage, they believe the franchise must be rethought given that hardcore business junkies can find all the information they need on the Internet.

Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis is going with the flow rather than fighting the current. From a business perspective, she says, her station is putting much of its energy into a 9News.com web page assembled in conjunction with ColoradoBiz magazine. "It's still 9News," she emphasizes. "It's just a different platform." On the air, meanwhile, she prefers to concentrate on consumer stories delivered by reporter/anchor Mark Koebrich. Channel 4 news director Tim Wieland asks his consumer pro, Ericka Lewis, to take a comparable approach, which he likens to TV sportscasters' shift away from scoreboard-watching.

"If you're a real sports fan and you want to know the scores, you'll have found them on the Internet or ESPN," Wieland says. "And I think the same thing is true of business and the stock market. So we'll report some numbers and figures as developing stories, but as a general rule, we're more focused on things that we believe more directly affect people's lives."

The sports analogy is especially apt when it comes to morning shows. Channels 2, 4, 7, 9 and 31 all make room for sports recaps and updates in their a.m. broadcasts, but only longtime ratings champ 9News bothers having a sportscaster -- Susie Wargin -- dispense it. (Wargin became the sole morning-sports survivor earlier this year when Channel 4 eliminated the position that Mark McIntosh had held for a mere eighteen years. McIntosh quickly signed on with Colorado & Company, the pay-to-be-a-guest talk show that airs mid-mornings on Channel 9.) Likewise, each of the morning shows normally includes a few items that appear under the business label, but main anchors do the reading. The component parts of these segments tend to be brief and product-oriented. On October 12, for instance, Channel 9 informed its audience about this earth-shattering news: Miller is test-marketing a chocolate beer, although not in Colorado.

More complex business reports are rarer, in part because the surveys and focus groups conducted by stations show that typical viewers don't yearn for them. "It's generally true that business stories don't rank as high as, say, health stories or even consumer stories -- the save-me-money or how-do-I-make-money stories," says Carl Bilek, news director for Channel 2. "It depends on how you define business. But when it comes to real, delineated business reporting, research shows that it doesn't rank that highly." Nevertheless, Channel 2's early opus offers more business news than many of its competitors by virtue of Bloomberg TV's Nicole Petallides, who provides information on national and Colorado firms three times per weekday morning from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. "It makes a lot more sense to go to the source for business," Bilek argues, "than having somebody here reading numbers that come through the Associated Press."

In contrast, Channel 7 has gone the local-guest-expert route with Michael Speer of Presidential Brokerage, who visits the station three mornings per week in addition to making regular appearances on KHOW. "He provides insight on what the market is doing and helps put things into context," says Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy. Because people like Speer accept such gigs in order to bring extra publicity to their firms, they don't cost TV stations much -- and that only adds to their appeal from a budgetary standpoint. While neither Channel 4's Wieland nor Channel 31 news director Brad Remington have settled on exactly what they're going to do in the mornings business-wise (they say they're mulling over a variety of options), odds are good that both will at least consider taking a page from Channel 7's book.

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