A report about the contract status of Channel 9 anchor Jim Benemann didn't wind up in Rocky Mountain News gossip specialist Penny Parker's February 27 column by accident. Negotiations had obviously hit a bump the size of Mt. Evans, and one party or another saw an advantage in letting the public know about it by planting an item.
What happened next -- Benemann went from being a valued part of the 9News team to the anchor-in-waiting at rival Channel 4 -- happened quickly. On March 21, the day Channel 4 issued press releases announcing the Benemann acquisition, Big Jim was promptly relieved of his Channel 9 duties. During the weekend that followed, Channel 9 broadcast a promo featuring Benemann on at least one occasion -- an indication that the rest of the staff was scrambling to catch up with the swiftly moving developments.
Details about the contract talks at Channel 9 are tough to come by; neither Benemann nor Roger Ogden, the station's president and general manager, offers to share. What's clear, though, is that Channel 9 was unwilling to get into a bidding war over Benemann even if the result of inaction would be his jump to the market's next-strongest contender. In this respect, the situation can't help but recall the decisions of other high-profile Channel 9 figures to sign up with former adversaries -- most prominently, weatherman Ed Greene, who also inked with Channel 4, plus sportscaster Ron Zappolo and lead reporter Phil Keating, both now news anchors for Channel 31.
Yet despite the talent drain, which was exacerbated by the semi-retirement a few years back of longtimer Ed Sardella (he's currently filling Benemann's seat on a temporary basis), Channel 9 remains the ratings champ in virtually every significant time period, as has been the case for years. Granted, its lead in some slots narrowed during the recent February sweeps, but the numbers offer few clues about an impending popularity collapse. Because no such evidence followed the departures of Greene, Zappolo or Keating, either, Ogden can be forgiven for thinking that the faces in front of the cameras at his outlet aren't nearly as important as they're thought to be elsewhere. Such a belief would offer him a tremendous advantage when it comes to dealing with future staffers who want hefty raises. Simply put, he could tell any anchor or reporter who won't kowtow salary-wise to hit the highway, knowing that viewers will keep watching -- no matter who's delivering the news.
While Ogden is far too smart an operator to confirm this theory directly, many of his comments lend credence to it. He concedes that personalities "are a major component of how people make choices; it's certainly a big piece of the equation." However, he goes on, "there are many, many other pieces that people focus on when they make choices. Some of it is history and credibility. Some of it is chemistry. Some of it is the organization's involvement in the community with events like the 9Health Fair [which runs through April 19]. And this station has had a very long, rich history of doing these other things very well."
In addition, Channel 9 boasts a strong track record of recruiting staffers who, after a few years, other stations want to steal. A prime example is weathercaster Kathy Sabine. "When Ed Greene moved back to Channel 4, Kathy took over, and our morning show is stronger than it's ever been," Ogden says. "It's generally number one or two in the country."
What Ogden doesn't mention, but Benemann does, is that when Sabine's contract came up for renewal a while back, Channel 9 fought to keep her. "She was wooed strongly by several other stations in the market, and they figured out a way for Kathy to remain," he says. "And I think they were extremely nervous when they lost some other people -- for instance, Ed Sardella. But I was able to come in, and we made a very deliberate transition, and the station continued to do well."
That Benemann would emphasize the role of talent in a station's success is only natural -- and he's got a fat new contract with Channel 4 with which to bolster his argument. "I certainly would not want to imply that Channel 9 was disinterested as to whether I stayed or left," he notes. "It's just that Channel 4 made a long-term commitment, which is something Channel 9 wasn't willing to do. My wife and I have four children -- they're nineteen, seventeen, eleven and eight -- and we've moved with our family on a few occasions. That gets harder and harder. So when CBS and [Channel 4 vice president and general manager] Walt DeHaven said we can make it so there's a guarantee you wouldn't have to move for several years, that was music to our ears."
Benemann can't start work at Channel 4 immediately because of a standard six-month no-compete clause in his Channel 9 contract, which doesn't officially end until April 14. Clauses like this one probably wouldn't survive a court challenge, but the vast majority of stations see them as advantageous because of the way they limit raids from competitors. For this reason, Benemann says discussions are under way to shorten the span during which he must sit on the sidelines by mutual agreement, not lawsuit.
If this effort is unsuccessful, Benemann won't be back on Channel 4, where he worked in the early '90s, until October -- the month before another key ratings interval. Still, one sign points to cooperation. When Benemann was named Best News Anchor in metro Denver at the March 29 Colorado Broadcasters Association award ceremony, Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis, designated to accept the plaudit for her station, invited Angie Kucharski, her opposite number at Channel 4, to join her at the podium. Such displays of magnanimity are rarer than reality shows on which contestants aren't asked to eat entrails.
In this spirit, Benemann goes out of his way to squelch rumors that he and Channel 9 co-anchor Adele Arakawa got along like George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, and he dismisses claims that he was brusquely told to clean out his desk and skedaddle after he announced his change in affiliation. Indeed, he says that Ogden, with whom he first worked way back in 1981, was extremely gracious and invited him to come and go as he pleased prior to his contract's expiration. Benemann also shrugs off the fact that he wasn't allowed to personally deliver a goodbye or say where he was heading (Sardella did it for him). "I would like to think I had developed some loyal viewers over the past six years," he allows, "but I can certainly understand that I was immediately removed from my on-air responsibilities."
As for Ogden, he reveals that he started searching for a Benemann replacement even before the anchor was gone. "Knowing that this was a possibility, we were quietly looking for about two weeks before the announcement was made, and we've been looking quite aggressively since then.
"There's always risk when you go through this process," he adds. "There was risk when Ron left, when Ed Greene left, when Ed Sardella went into his retirement, and we've done just fine. I wouldn't indicate for a minute that we think it's automatic -- that we have some sort of pre-ordained right to news leadership in this community. We have to make a good choice, and I know we're capable of doing it. We've done it before, and we'll do it again."
War pays: As Channel 4 waits for Jim Benemann's arrival, it's doing more to endear itself to supporters of the war in Iraq than any other local station. Lavishly produced spots saluting the troops overseas are aired frequently, and last week the station sponsored a "United 4 Colorado" campaign to collect money for the families of reservists and National Guard personnel who've been called to active duty. Air talent lined the street in front of Channel 4's offices to gather donations; later, anchor Stephanie Riggs introduced a segment about the fundraiser by sharing a drawing "of U.S. soldiers at war in Iraq" made by a six-year-old who'd cleaned out his piggy bank for the cause.
There are big questions about whether news organizations should be closely aligning themselves with topics on which they're reporting -- a subject that was explored in this space last week ("Rally Time," April 3). Nonetheless, embracing a popular issue improves the bottom line much more readily than pure objectivity does. With Fox News -- by far the most gung-ho cable-news operation -- handily winning the ratings battle, the financial benefits are clear to consultants like Cleveland's McVay Media. In the March 27 Washington Post, reporter Paul Farhi quoted a McVay "War Manual" memo to clients that advises, "Get the following production pieces in the studio NOW.... Patriotic music that makes you cry, salute, get cold chills! Go for the emotion."
Channel 4 regularly sounds variations on this theme -- and on April 1, even its closed captioning was on war footing. Each time the Colorado Rockies were mentioned during one sports report, the team's name was spelled out as "Iraqis."
According to the broadcast, the Iraqis lost to the Houston Astros 10-4. If only the conflict had lasted just nine innings in real life.
Age has its privileges: The seven-year battle between onetime reporter Dave Minshall and Channel 7, previously recounted in this space ("Old News," May 3, 2001), may finally be nearing its end.
After the station declined to renew his contract in 1997, Minshall sued in United States District Court, alleging that he was a victim of age discrimination. In September 2001, a jury agreed, ordering that he be paid $562,000 in back pay and penalties, plus over $100,000 for legal fees and court costs. Channel 7 appealed this decision, and on March 28 -- approximately a year after Minshall turned down a paltry settlement offer of $75,000 -- the United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, ruled in his favor. Judge Michael R. Murphy, who authored the opinion on behalf of fellow judges Bobby R. Baldock and Terrence L. O'Brien, agreed with Channel 7 that a few stray comments -- like former news director Melissa Klinzing's remark that "old people should die" -- were improperly admitted at the first trial. Even so, no errors were found to be so prejudicial as to justify reversal of the original verdict. Murphy and company rejected all of Channel 7's arguments and affirmed the district court's decree.
Franklin Nachman, an attorney with Littler Mendelson who was part of the legal team working on behalf of Channel 7, didn't return a call seeking comment. David Lane, Minshall's lawyer, wasn't so shy. He acknowledges that Channel 7 could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court (the station has ninety days from the ruling to file) but doubts the high court would take it on. "The Tenth Circuit simply applied black-letter, basic law principles that are well settled to this case," Lane maintains. "There are no sexy issues for the court to get involved with. I look at it as a resounding opinion from top to bottom. We won every single aspect of it. There is no downside." At present, Lane says he is negotiating with Channel 7's lawyers "to try to circumvent further delays -- maybe give them a slight discount if they cough up the cash quick. But the total package they're ultimately going to have to give Dave is in the neighborhood of $800,000."
Although this sum, which includes interest, sounds awfully sweet, Lane stresses that it's taken Minshall a long time to get within smelling distance of it. "He lost his job in 1997, and it's now 2003, and he still doesn't have any money. There really has to be some better way for the federal courts to handle these cases rather than to take six years, because it can have absolutely devastating consequences."
Minshall, too, expresses frustration over what he calls "stalling tactics designed to starve me out. Their strategy all along was to stretch this out as long as they could to make me go away -- and I haven't." Far from it: Minshall has made a hobby of handbilling the Channel 7 parking lot, and on March 14, he and his family picketed the station and expressed their displeasure, using a loudspeaker to commemorate the anniversary of what he calls "my untimely demise. I don't know if it shook them up, but it made us feel good -- and a little less helpless."
So, too, would getting what a jury says he deserves. With the finish line finally in sight, Minshall's got only one question left: "Where's my money?"
The doctor is in: The image rehabilitation of Dean Singleton, whose MediaNews firm owns the Denver Post, continues apace. Once upon a time, Singleton was among the most widely reviled figures in newspapering, but the headline on a cover story in the March/April edition of the Columbia Journalism Review provides him with a much cheerier nickname: "The Newspaper Surgeon." In the piece itself, author Scott Sherman wonders if by buying ailing newspapers, the tycoon is saving them or hastening their demise. "How would you ask that question to a heart surgeon?" Singleton responds. "It's pretty difficult to go blame a heart surgeon for the patients he loses on the table and not give him credit for the scores and scores he saves."
Of course, Sherman's article documents less laudatory moments in Singleton's history, too, even quoting from a 1975 memo in which the boss told staffers at the Fort Worth Press, which he had just purchased, that their jobs depended in part on how many coupons for a local department store were used -- so they should encourage their wives to spend, spend, spend. Unsurprisingly, these are the aspects of the profile that Singleton found most disposable. "Your past is part of you, but at this point, I think people would be sick of reading about it," he says. "I certainly am. There's so much that has happened in the last ten years that didn't get in there, and it's a lot more interesting."
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Also fascinating was one reason Singleton gave for entering into a joint operating agreement with the Rocky Mountain News, rather than simply attempting to bury it. Sherman writes that Singleton "had heard that one of Colorado's wealthiest citizens was interested in the [News], and he was afraid of a new infusion of cash and a much longer newspaper war."
So who was this prosperous local? Phil Anschutz? Peter Coors? Blinky the Clown? Unfortunately, Singleton refuses to specify. "I was aware through industry discussion that one or more players had made inquiries about buying the Rocky," he says. "I knew that was out there, and since then, I've had it verified both from interested parties and from folks at [News owner] Scripps that there were people who had made inquiries."
This admission isn't an acknowledgement that Singleton and Scripps violated the Newspaper Preservation Act, which makes JOAs legal; representatives of a failing paper aren't prohibited from signing such a pact if potential buyers exist and it's not a last resort. All the same, the thought that a JOA might have been avoided -- and truly unfettered newspaper competition might exist in Denver today -- isn't a happy one.
To put it another way, both patients might still be alive without having gone under the knife. Surgery can be such a pain.