If the established television-news purveyors in town were hoping that Channel 31's foray into their territory -- an hour-long broadcast unveiled at 9 p.m. on July 16 -- would stink like the cast of Survivor after a long day on the beach, they wound up disappointed. The initial broadcast by Denver's Fox affiliate, though larded with enough promotional footage to make it seem like an infomercial at times, was slick, watchable and seemingly built to last.
Yet comparisons to Edward R. Murrow will have to wait -- probably forever. After monitoring week one of the station's news fare, it was abundantly clear that it owed its accessibility to show business. That's how you spell "success" in the TV news game these days.
Specifics? You've got 'em.
Anchors away: The decision of Channel 9 czar Roger Ogden to let longtime sportscaster Ron Zappolo leave the fold was one of the most boneheaded in recent memory. Not only did his departure (along with that of veteran Ed Sardella) take the steam out of the 9News juggernaut, but it helped give Channel 31 instant credibility. Zappolo was every bit as effective delivering news as he used to be dishing out stats, and he had an easy rapport with Libby Weaver, an import from Chicago who so perfectly combines the physiological characteristics associated with the modern female co-anchor that she seems to have been built in a laboratory. Better ratings through science.
The other Sunday-Thursday anchors were considerably less effective. Weatherman Bob Goosmann, from Dallas, came across like an ex-jock in search of a tackling dummy, and his tendency to ramble caused several of his week-one forecasts to seem nearly as long as Roots. Plus, his idea of self-deprecating humor was to talk endlessly about what a tough time he was having accurately predicting the Colorado weather; there were even "On Target" graphics showing how close he'd come to guessing that day's high temperature. For an encore, maybe he'll trade in the Doppler radar for a handful of darts?
For his part, ex-Broncos-placekicker-turned-sports-anchor David Treadwell appeared to be trying way too hard; in contrast to the low-key, conversational approach that works so well for him on KTLK radio, he relied upon a loud, barking delivery, too-vigorous gesticulations and the frozen smile of a teenager caught in the boys' room with a slightly sticky copy of Hustler. Worse, his writing was bland and cliched even by TV-sports standards (egad!), and his boosterism was out of control. Treadwell's several gushing tributes to the greatness of John Elway, who spent the week playing decent but hardly extraordinary golf, made him seem about as objective as a Cuban national broadcaster praising Fidel Castro. ¡Vive numero siete!
The secret weapon: During his first few days on Channel 31, consumer advocate Tom Martino was like a beast unleashed. At the end of his debut report, he called what he does "media with a purpose," then declared, "I'm troubleshooter Tom Martino -- and I'm back" as if he'd morphed into an Arnold Schwarzenegger flick.
Of course, none of his shtick so much as resembles good journalism; even that initial story, about a landowner who'd turned his property into a trash heap, had more holes in it than Bonnie and Clyde. Moreover, three of his first five reports ended with him giving money, goods or services to people via his "Help Center" -- a tactic that turned the tales into tributes to himself. But while his rampaging egomania could be annoying, as it was during a July 21 report on camping gear that ran for a ridiculous four minutes, it also led to unintentional hilarity. Who else but Martino would start an exploitive look at a woman miffed that her surgically enhanced mammaries wound up larger than she'd wanted with the line "At first glance you see a very attractive woman with perfectly formed breasts"? Somebody turn a hose on this guy!
The supporting cast: Most of the week's reports were standard-issue TV fare -- but there's no denying that the crew giving them was overflowing with personality. Whereas the other local stations mainly feature generic pretty people who are fairly interchangeable, Channel 31 offered Friday-Saturday co-anchors Phil Keating, a flamboyantly hip party boy, and Shaul Turner, an instant diva who looks as if she'd give anyone who breaks one of her nails a good ass-kicking, plus a distinctive, multi-ethnic batch of reporters: James Earl Jones soundalike Will Jones, energetic, MTV-ready Whei Wong, killer yuppie Robert Thompson, news pixie Kim Posey, concrete-haired Friday-Saturday sports dude Ty Ray and more, more, more. It's like the cast of a new David E. Kelley show brought to life.
The news that fits: Keating landed Channel 31's first scoop, revealing that Rockies second baseman Mike Lansing had been on a ride-along with the SWAT team that killed Ismael Mena last year. But the piece left oodles of pertinent questions unasked, unanswered or unchallenged: When police spokeswoman Detective Virginia Lopez said no investigation of the matter was warranted, someone should have been found to dispute this ludicrous contention, which completely fell apart within hours. A report about water safety had a similar gap; it mentioned that it was inspired by someone at Fox but failed to note that the primary interview subject was the wife of Channel 31 news director Bill Dallman.
Other stories masqueraded as news but provided little. Jones's day-in-the-life look at Denver police chief Gerry Whitman was purely promotional, and Turner's night-in-an-emergency-room feature was about as exciting as watching soil erode. Worst of all were the daily "You're in the Spotlight" segments, in which everyday folks commented on banal topics in banal ways. Such time-wasters wouldn't be so aggravating if national news hadn't consistently been given short shrift. But most nights, stories from outside Colorado (excluding sports and weather) were given only about a minute of airtime, with the treatment many of them received demonstrating some questionable news judgment. On July 19, for example, a quick update of the Middle East peace talks followed footage of a worker being rescued from a silo. If it had been a little girl in a well, it probably would have led the newscast.
Gimme gimmickry: Channel 31's musical stings, which interpolate parts of the 20th Century Fox movie theme, were grabby; the main-set backdrop, with faux spotlight beams also suggestive of the film studio, was clever; and the graphics were first-rate: Especially useful were teases that told viewers that a story could be seen "before 9:30" or "before 9:45," so they'd know how long they needed to stick around. But there were also innovations that were much less helpful, such as interrupting the weather forecast with a commercial break, thereby forcing the audience to sit through several spots before they could find out how hot it would be the next day. The results may have pleased advertisers, but it reminded this observer of a certain scene from A Clockwork Orange. What's next -- pinning my eyes open to make sure I'm watching Dealin' Doug?
The week saw a handful of glitches that might have made folks yearn to look away, some of which were beyond Channel 31's control (the audio for Zappolo's interview with Roy Romer was blotted out by a flash-flood warning that ran on most cable systems), and some that weren't (during part of the July 21 weather report, a temperature map bled through the blue dress worn by second-string weather forecaster Karen Eden, making it look as if the temperature in Gunnison was tattooed across her abdomen). But with the exception of night one, which ran one hour and three minutes long (couldn't they have cut at least one of the promos?), the newscasts were every bit as good as those offered up by its competitors.
Talk about damning them with faint praise...
Even more Tom for sale: The same week Tom Martino made his Channel 31 bow, he announced that his radio show, heard on KHOW from noon to three weekdays, is to be syndicated nationally by Westwood One. According to Robin Bertolucci, director of AM programming for the Denver branch of Clear Channel, which owns KHOW, the switchover will take place in mid-August -- meaning that callers from Westminster with consumer problems will have to fight for airtime with folks from, say, Hackensack, New Jersey. (He's been heard Saturday mornings on WABC in New York for several weeks.) She predicts, though, that this shift in focus won't lessen the program's appeal locally. "It's because of Tom's incredible personality and the entertaining nature of what he does that all of these things are happening," she says, "and those things aren't going to change."
Fans of KHOW newsman Steve Alexander aren't so lucky: The newscasts he's helmed with so much aplomb over the years have been deep-sixed in favor of satellite updates from CBS. Bertolucci insists that Alexander, who is currently working on a top-secret Internet project due for introduction next month, remains an important part of the station, adding that the CBS component adds "variety" to the Clear Channel talk lineup. But what this modification really does is dramatically lower the profile of an interesting broadcaster while simultaneously making KHOW less local -- something the Martino move is likely to do as well. It'll probably save money, though. And isn't that the only thing that matters?
Paint by numbers: The folks at the Rocky Mountain News still seem shell-shocked by the power shift that's taken place since the announcement of a proposed joint operating agreement between the News and the Denver Post -- but many of them have retained at least some of the feistiness they exhibited during the city's Pyrrhic newspaper war. For instance, News staffers maintain a so-called "Post of Shame," where they exhibit layouts from the Post that deliver "valuable lessons on how not to design your pages."
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A recent display concentrated on "Who Protects the Children?," the first chapter in a five-part foster care series that ran on the cover of the Post's Sunday, May 21, edition, is a case in point. The article was honored not because it was ugly, but because it nearly duplicates the look of a Seattle Times/ Post-Intelligencer front page reproduced in the nineteenth edition of Best of News Design, a book that's in the library of pretty much every art director in the country. Both efforts feature the same soft edges around photographs, the same cameo of a tot mated with a poignant headline, and boxed borders that are similarly dark and blurry -- although perhaps not quite as blurry as the line between inspiration and pilfering.
At the Rocky, meanwhile, staffers are departing at a steady clip -- and while some of the moves were supposedly in the works prior to word of the JOA, the timing is more than a tad suspicious. Photog Glenn Asakawa has already jumped (as noted in this space last week, he just took a position at the Post), as have education writer Brian Weber (bound for the Stapleton Foundation) and business types Guy Kelly and Michele Conklin (Kelly hooked up with a mutual-funds business in Kansas City, while Conklin has signed with Centura Health). In addition, reliable sources say that scribe Mike Anton is bound for an Orange County post with the Los Angeles Times (Anton didn't return a call seeking confirmation). As for gifted columnist Mike Littwin's slated move from the sports section to the front-of-the-book slot once held by the icky Kim Franke-Folstad, it's been delayed by the need to find replacements for both him and Bob Kravitz, who vacated the premises earlier this month.
Although the uncertainties of the JOA (the subject of yet another puffy, the-glass-is-three-quarters-full series in the July 23 Post) would seem to make recruiting a challenge, Rocky business editor Rob Reuteman says he hasn't had any big problems finding qualified candidates thus far (Jeanie Stokes replaced Kelly, while Mike Romano, who has been the News's Washington correspondent, will step in for Conklin). But if all the people at the News who are supposedly considering their options start exercising them, that could change mighty fast. Will the last person to leave please turn out the lights?