Channel 9 sportscaster Drew Soicher is more interested in appealing to people who don't follow sports than those who do.
"The sports fans are easy," he says. "Even if they don't like you, they'll watch -- so why would I aggressively recruit them? But I personally think non-sports fans make up 80 percent or more of the audience for local news. Those are the guys I'm going after."
At first blush, this strategy seems counterintuitive. After all, Denver is well known as one of the country's most sports-crazy communities. But the citizenry's collective mania doesn't translate to high viewership of late-night sportscasts. For years, ratings data has shown that a hefty proportion of folks stick around through news and weather segments only to split prior to the sports update.
The most persuasive explanation for this phenomenon involves the plethora of alternative outlets for sports information. "If you're a loyal sports fan and you want the facts, all you have to do is jump on the Internet, turn on ESPN or read the crawl at the bottom of your screen," says Channel 4 sports anchor Vic Lombardi. "That's why we have to provide a little more than just the facts. We have to provide some opinion and some fun."
Lombardi practices this philosophy even as he epitomizes a generational shift in Denver TV sports. He recently took over the top sports-anchor slot at Channel 4 from Steve Atkinson, who was in many ways a throwback to a previous era; he presented info in a square-jawed, straightforward manner rather than affecting the edge first popularized by ESPN and other cable-sports outlets. His promotion means that all of the main sports anchors in Denver -- Lombardi and Soicher, plus Channel 2's Marc Soicher (Drew's older brother), Channel 7's Lionel Bienvenu and Channel 31's Eric Goodman -- take a contemporary approach to the medium. These five aren't clones of each other: Goodman and Marc Soicher, both of whom once worked for Fox Sports Net, retain strong ties to the old school, and Lombardi is something of a hybrid, while Drew Soicher and Bienvenu (another Fox Sports Net alum) regularly utilize humor and the sort of showbizzy flourishes that probably would have led to their sacking during the '70s or '80s. All of them concede, however, that the days when sports anchors needed to do little more than read scores and stats in a locker-room voice are long gone. As Bienvenu puts it, "You still have to give the facts, but you have to tailor them to the members of your audience who don't care about sports."
Anchors who use such techniques risk incurring the enmity of veteran writers such as Rocky Mountain News scribe Dusty Saunders, who seems to get a charge out of spanking Drew Soicher, in particular. In one 2005 piece, Saunders dubbed "Drew or False," a question-and-answer routine that's one of Soicher's trademarks, an irritating gimmick; in another, he derided Soicher's "often-feeble attempts at humor." Astonishingly, Soicher, a 9News staffer since 2000, insists that he's not familiar with Saunders, who's been the Rocky's radio-and-television columnist for more than thirty years. But he feels that scribes like Saunders should be grateful for his presence. "If I was a media critic, I'd love having me in town, because I'm an easy target," he says. "I'm opinionated, I'm different, and I ask for trouble from critics -- and that's okay with me. To me, that's part of the job. Some people are going to agree with what you do, and some people aren't."
Viewers who fall into the latter category regularly express their displeasure in e-mails to Soicher, and he couldn't be happier about it. While he doesn't usually archive complimentary messages, he's built quite a collection of derogatory notes, and is even thinking of compiling his favorites into a book to benefit Children's Hospital. To him, it'd be a way of "making a positive out of a negative" -- and the more negative the e-mails are, the more he loves them.
Examples? In 2004, a man named Jeremy asserted, "You are without question the worst reporter in the history of television. Mind you that this observation is not limited to just sports anchors, but all anchors everywhere.... I am sure I speak for most viewers when I say that I would rather watch scum freeze on the eyeballs of a dead jackass than listen to your personal opinion." In contrast, a 2006 missive from an e-mailer called Frank took a more personal angle. "I have a 65-inch high-def TV," he wrote, "and you have one nostril (the left one) that is longer than the other one. Please do something about this, as I can no longer stand to look at you."
Turns out Frank isn't imagining things. Marc Soicher gleefully confirms that his younger brother's nose is a mess, owing to a mishap during a childhood softball game that took place before a previous shnoz injury had fully healed. "He was having a catch, and when somebody called his name, he turned, and the ball hit him right in the face," Marc says. "I think something got screwed up structurally, and they had to put all the pieces back together."
Don't expect sympathy from Frank, though, since he seems entirely unwilling to cut Drew slack in any area -- even ones unrelated to his proboscis. He concluded his e-mail rant by declaring, "Besides this nostril thing bugging the shit out of me, I also think you're the worst in your field in any market."
Channel 7's Bienvenu, whose relentless use of catchphrases, pop-culture references and assorted gags makes Soicher seem conservative in comparison, receives similar slagging from e-mailers who don't connect with him. According to him, "They say, 'Stop screaming! Stop yelling! It's obnoxious!'" He acknowledges that his shoot-from-the-lip tangents have backfired on occasion, including the time when he said a woodpecker that had been hanging out on his deck would soon be extinct if it kept waking him up at 5 a.m. -- a comment that precipitated a swarm of complaints from bird lovers. Still, he thinks that sportscasters who play it safe won't stick around in today's broadcasting environment. "The old give-me-the-scores routine, I don't think that works anymore," he says. "Whether it's a stupid skit, a hopefully funny graphic or whatever, you have to at least attempt to use entertainment."
Granted, there are less extreme ways of doing so than the ones Bienvenu employs -- and that's the territory Channel 31's Eric Goodman works. "I try to bring a mix to the table: give good information, but try to have as much fun as possible," Goodman says. His nightly "Big Video" feature is generally driven by sports, not silliness, and he's not "someone who just jokes around. There are lots of guys in this business who feel they need to be funny all the time. But I feel like, if there's an opportunity to say something clever, take it. If there's not, don't force it."
These thoughts are echoed by Channel 2's Marc Soicher, the more solid and sedate member of the Soicher clan. "I'll search for something to put at the end of the show, or in the middle of a highlight package, that might make you chuckle or roll your eyes," he points out. "But a big part of what I do is express my opinion, and if I'm a total goofball, no one's going to listen to it."
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Drew Soicher is among those who's impressed by the senior Soicher's work. "I recognize that I'm not even the best sportscaster in my family," he says. On the other hand, little bro Drew is on the most-watched local 10 p.m. newscast -- a position he appreciates, particularly since he skipped through nine markets before finally finding a home in Denver. "I have the type of style where, when things are going well, I get all the credit," he maintains, "and when they aren't, I'm the first one out the door."
Given the viewership dropoff prior to most sportscasts, he'd better hope that ratings dominance continues.
Erratum: Thanks to a brain fart so explosive that it's a wonder my head is still attached, I wrote that Bill Ritter is running for senator, not governor, in the June 8 edition of this column. Clearly, I was running on fumes.