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Anchor-Go-Round

Say cheese: Rocky Mountain Sports Report anchor Gordie Hershiser.

In March, Tom Green announced that he would be leaving his post as lead sportscaster on Channel 7 to take the helm of Rocky Mountain Sports Report, a locally based program slated to debut on Fox Sports Net Rocky Mountain come late spring. In May, Green divulged that his agreement with Fox had collapsed and his future at Channel 7 was uncertain. In June, he quietly left Channel 7 three days prior to the first Rocky Mountain Sports Report broadcast from Denver and four days before the first appearance of Channel 7's new sports anchor, Lionel Bienvenu, late of...Fox Sports Net.

You can't tell the players without a program, but one thing is abundantly clear: What initially looked like a career upturn for Green went south in a hurry. "A lot of things happened," he says, "and I was left horribly in the middle."

In the beginning, the situation looked considerably brighter. As reported first in this space ("Head to Head," February 22), Fox Sports Net chose Denver to test its new marketing strategy, which de-emphasizes centralization à la ESPN in favor of regional hubs focusing on the home teams of nearby sports buffs. Green seemed like the ideal choice to host this experiment in localism. He had twenty years' experience in the Denver market, including three years at Channel 7, and thanks to a provision in his Channel 7 contract, he was doing occasional work for Fox Sports Net Rocky Mountain. As a bonus, he was, and is, a likable presence, able to balance wit with first-rate reporting skills.

Channel 7 types, recognizing these characteristics, offered Green what he calls "a nice offer to stay" at the station. But the opportunity to get in on the ground floor at Fox Sports Net's latest project was too much for him, and he soon reached an agreement with Fox Sports Net Rocky Mountain head man Tim Griggs to take the reins at the Rocky Mountain Sports Report. Unfortunately, Green says, "the corporate office at Fox in L.A. eventually got involved, and they tried to alter the deal. I told them they couldn't, and they told me, 'The deal's off.'"

In early May, when these maneuverings were taking place, Channel 7 had not yet signed a new sports anchor -- seemingly good news for Green. But a number of factors prevented execs from welcoming back their prodigal son. Because word of Green's departure received big play in the Denver dailies, the station might have come across as desperate had it embraced him again, especially considering its generally mediocre ratings. Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy points out that in key demographics for certain newscasts, the outlet is in second place behind Channel 9 but ahead of Channel 4. But Grandy concedes that when it comes to so-called household ratings for the 10 p.m. newscasts, in which Channel 7 regularly runs a distant third in a three-horse race, "we have a long way to go."

In addition, Channel 7 already had a line on Bienvenu, whose availability, appropriately enough, had everything to do with Fox Sports Net's regionalism slant. "Because of the development of the regional networks, Fox Sports was downsizing staff at the national level," Grandy says. "We just happened to catch some discussions with him when that process was beginning, and I think he saw a real opportunity -- and I don't blame him. To be a local sports guy in a market as good as this one is a great job."

Maybe so -- but there's no denying that the timing of Bienvenu's arrival was far from ideal. Amid the confusion over Green, the Colorado Avalanche were working their way through the National Hockey League playoffs on the way to the Stanley Cup -- and because ABC, Channel 7's network, had the rights to the NHL broadcasts, Green wound up receiving more and better exposure than during any other time in his tenure with the station. In particular, he fronted a series of impressive post-game shows, including several during the finals that saw him working with the knowledgeable Ralph Backstrom, a six-time Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens who went on to coach hockey at the University of Denver. "It was really unique," Green points out. "Normally a sportscaster is confined to just a few minutes. But on a nightly basis, we were afforded anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to do live television -- to speak extemporaneously in a forum where we not only could start a thought, but finish one."

Grandy says "there was never a doubt" that Green would anchor the Stanley Cup coverage, but he acknowledges that the increased viewership would have provided the ideal platform to introduce Bienvenu. "Depending on what side you're looking at it from, that was uncomfortable," he says. "But that's the way it goes."  

After the Avalanche hoopla died down, Green literally disappeared from Channel 7; he didn't make any farewell statement during his last broadcast, on June 14, because, he says, "things are so uncertain for me, I didn't have anything to say that would have made sense." Likewise, Bienvenu's arrival, on June 18, took place with zero fanfare, and no splashy presentations are pending. "I think we'll do things quietly this summer," Grandy notes. "We have five Broncos games this year, so we'll have plenty of opportunities to showcase his work then."

Thus far, Bienvenu's transition into the Channel 7 newscasts has been clunky. His cable-groomed style is considerably hotter than Green's, and he has a tendency/compulsion to overwrite, loading his spiels with more self-conscious groaners ("Ding-dong, the pitch is dead!" "Hold the Big Mac and pour on the special Sosa!") than they can safely support. During Bienvenu's first week, news anchors Mitch Jelniker and Ann Trujillo reacted to several of his sports reports with the most frozen of smiles.

But these rough patches are nothing compared to the early days of Fox Sports Rocky Mountain. Not that there have been major technical glitches in the switchover from Los Angeles, the program's place of origin for the past several months, to its new digs at 2300 15th Street. Indeed, things have gone almost too smoothly: The broadcast is so much like its L.A. predecessor that the move seems pointless. Anchors Gordie Hershiser, brother of onetime Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser, and Ed Berliner are sheer agony to watch, and not only because of Hershiser's beady eyes and mincing smile or Berliner's ridiculous hair, whose color is found in neither nature nor a Crayola box. No, the main problem is that their camaraderie feels as forced as their crazed enthusiasm for every local team seems bogus; they're like bad actors in a touring company trying to suck up to the locals. And with the exception of interview segments with area commentators, more of which are being done in-studio rather than via satellite, the program is taking little advantage of its Denver digs. Instead of live shots, the report is larded with taped packages like a stupid Keith Bleyer piece about a failed attempt to interview Rocky, the Nuggets mascot. Watching it, I felt a sense of horror I hadn't experienced since the creature burst out of John Hurt's chest in Alien.

Right now, Fox insiders are unsure whether Berliner will be with Rocky Mountain Sports Report for the long haul; he was brought in specifically for its launch. Clearly, though, the show needs someone whose mere presence evokes Denver sports -- like, for instance, Green, who's right now sitting at home wondering where he'll land next.

Green is dedicated to staying in Denver, and he's been talking with reps at several area stations. He even has nice things to say about Channel 7: "I have no rancor toward them. To be honest, had I not had what I felt was a real opportunity, I would have happily stayed there."

Instead of setting the dominoes in motion.

Untangling the Web: Early last week, radio giant Clear Channel took a big step toward resolving the Internet-streaming dilemma sketched out in the column preceding this one. To recap: Clear Channel stopped streaming its broadcasts in April partly because of a new union agreement that would pay commercial talent 300 percent of standard rates if an on-air spot appeared on the Web. But the company is on the way to overcoming this problem, thanks to an agreement with Hiwire Inc., a firm that's developed technology capable of removing certain ads from Internet broadcasts and replacing them with lower-cost substitutes.

How all of this will shake out remains a bit vague. For instance, Clear Channel says 250 of its 318 stations that had been streaming should be back on the Internet next month, and Lee Larsen, Clear Channel-Denver's vice president and general manager, believes his outlets will be among them. But even he is not sure exactly what Web listeners will hear during commercial blocks. "The concept behind [Hiwire] is that it will gather enough radio stations so that it will be able to market them nationally to advertisers whose commercials will be produced with the understanding that they'll be on the Internet," he says. "But whether they can pull that off from the beginning, I don't know. There's a learning curve to go through on all this, so we'll be learning as we go."

Web surfers will, too.

Construction Zone: Of the eight stations in the Clear Channel-Denver portfolio, the one in the roughest shape is KTLK, which has been a consistently miserable ratings performer. Of the top thirty Denver signals in the spring Arbitrons as judged by numbers of listeners ages twelve and above, KTLK placed 27th.  

In response, decision-makers have rechristened the outlet "The Zone," a mostly sports station (the exception is its morning-drive staple, Business for Breakfast) that's eager to attract fans of the more popular KKFN/The Fan. Already, the Zone has stolen one of the Fan's marquee programs, the mid-day bluster-fest hosted by Jim Rome, which is set to debut on KTLK July 2; the move was relatively easy, since the Rome show is owned by a Clear Channel subsidiary. Look for other theft attempts in the future.

Also partly new is KTLK's afternoon-drive offering, which recently saw the departure of stolid longtimer Jim Ryan and the arrival of ex-Bronco Mark Schlereth, a promising neophyte in the Scott Hastings mold. (Despite reassurances from Clear Channel higher-ups that he was still in their plans, Ryan jumped last week to the Fan, where he'll line up against Rome.) But Schlereth has been partnered with Ryan's former sidekick, onetime umpire Bob Davidson, who's among the lamest, least-amusing personalities on the air -- and he's casually homophobic to boot. The tandem lacks a straight man, leaving Davidson and Schlereth to step all over each other in their various attempts at humor. Big-city radio has seldom been so unlistenable.

Clear Channel-Denver's Larsen urges patience. "Chemistry between different people on the air is critical, and you can't force it," he says. "Sometimes you just have to let it develop, and that's what's going on now. I believe what you'll hear Mark and Bob do today won't be the same as you'll hear them do a month from now."

Pray he's right.

Everything's Jake: After American Furniture Warehouse owner Jake Jabs's attempt to reverse the joint operating agreement between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News was guffawed out of U.S. District Court in mid-April, observers began to speculate about how long it would take Jabs to begin advertising in the newspapers again. Well, whoever had "barely two months" in the pool gets the tiger-striped kitty: In the June 21 Post, Jabs announced that he would re-enter the dailies.

Two days later, News editor John Temple made an announcement of his own. In a front-page letter, he wrote that the paper's Saturday broadsheet edition was "evolving" -- although he failed to mention that what it's evolving into is the Post. As predicted here last week, the ballyhooed Insight section was gone. But more to the point, the issue's organization essentially duplicated that of the Post, destroying most of the News's personality in the process.

In his latest bit of spin, Temple claimed that the broadsheet format was being used because "production limitations make it impossible for us to print the quantity of tabloid papers needed on Saturday" -- at least the second different explanation he's given. In truth, the JOA agreement imposed the Saturday broadsheet on the News, and the News is stuck with it. Temple just can't bring himself to admit it.

C'mon, John. Confession is good for the soul.


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