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The Message

Brian Maass could be a key to Channel 4's recent ratings surge.
John Johnston

For ages, seemingly, the fight for television-news viewers in Denver has been about as competitive as a bare-knuckles grudge match between Lennox Lewis and Richard Simmons.

Channel 9 hasn't come out on top of every time slot during the past decade-plus, but it's won the great majority, and usually by a hefty margin. No matter what its rivals did, whether it be to hire new talent or build new sets or invent new charitable events or air special reports that had less news value than an episode of Mr. Personality, 9News continued to dominate. No wonder that when popular anchor Jim Benemann left the station earlier this year, Channel 9 president and general manager Roger Ogden reacted with the equivalent of a casual shrug.

And why not? As Ogden noted in this space ("Weighing Anchors," April 10), the outlet has "done just fine" following the departures of high-profile talent like Ron Zappolo and Ed Greene -- and in remarks that added a smidgen of modesty to an extra helping of confidence, he displayed little doubt that the streak will continue. "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," Ogden said. "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."

Maybe so, but even picking the right frontman might not be enough to guarantee Channel 9's supremacy for the long haul. In the recently concluded May sweeps, which largely determine advertising rates in the immediate future, Channel 4 showed the most growth by far, eating into Channel 9's lead during several key periods. At 10 p.m., Channel 4 gained two share points over last May, with Channel 9 edging up just half a point. At 6 p.m., Channel 4 held steady as Channel 9 lost a point. And at 5 p.m., Channel 4 climbed a share at a time when Channel 9 took a six-point tumble, leaving the stations in a virtual tie in the afternoon's most important local news heat. (In metro Denver, one ratings point represents 13,662 households.)

The reasons for this shift are complicated and tough to quantify, but the unevenness of Channel 9's late-April-to-late-May broadcasts likely played a role. The outlet has long excelled at timing bravura investigations to debut during sweeps months, and this time around, a Paula Woodward piece that charged outgoing Denver Mayor Wellington Webb with using personal services contracts to bust through hiring limits placed upon him by the city charter looked promising. However, the report tried to cram in too much detail, muddying the issue in the process, and Webb's lame-duck status prevented it from causing much of a stir. As such, the main news the station made in May was of the simulated sort, via a partnership agreement with the Denver Post that produces stories printed under 9News bylines that frequently do little more than rehash TV scripts from the night before. Such deals are the wave of the media future ("Let's Get Together," October 31, 2002), but for Channel 9 watchers, the articles themselves are good for little more than a severe case of déjà vu.

Even worse, numerous Channel 9 broadcasts simply felt tired. Although veteran anchor Ed Sardella, who stepped down from full-time duties several years ago but agreed to return on a fill-in basis after Benemann split, is putting up a brave front, he often seems like a prisoner counting the days until his parole hearing. After the screening of a Cheryl Preheim package about quintuplets in Bennett who graduated from high school this year, Sardella remarked that since he'd reported on the quints' birth, it was probably time for him to retire -- and while co-anchor Adele Arakawa and weatherman Mike Nelson laughed at this comment, Sardella appeared to be only partly joking. It's no surprise, then, that Channel 9's on-air chemistry of late has recalled the seasons of the Sonny and Cher Show taped after the stars divorced.

Up next: Gregg Allman with sports.

Granted, Channel 9's news programming remains fairly solid in general, and its morning block once again pummeled the competition; despite a goodbye last week from business regular Gregg Moss, who left for a variety of health-related reasons, the a.m. show seems impervious to attack. Still, the promos now airing, in which shots of 9News personalities expressing gratitude to viewers for another sweeps championship are interspersed with ratings graphics that ignore some contests and make other victories seem more resounding than they actually were, feel more relieved than celebratory.

Channel 4, in contrast, seems freshly invigorated due to developments behind the cameras as well as in front of them -- and vice president and general manager Walt DeHaven has had a lot to do with the changes in both areas. In a conversation with Westword conducted within weeks after he replaced longtimer Marv Rockford ("Not Kinder, Not Gentler," September 19, 2002), DeHaven laid out an improvement plan that called for pouring more resources into the news operation and then promoting the hell out of it. Since then, he's done precisely that, and he's eager to push things even further. "We're not resting on our laurels," he says. "We're charging and we're not going to stop. There'll be not less intensity, but more. If I were a competitor, I'd be concerned."

 

In many ways, DeHaven's timing is good. CBS, Channel 4's owner, has a well-deserved reputation for cheapness, and because the network's ratings during much of the '80s and '90s were fairly moribund, relatively little dough was left over for stations in regional markets like Denver. Lately, though, CBS's fortunes are looking up; in May, it led the field in ratings overall and was a close second behind NBC in the 18-to-49 demographic most coveted by advertisers. Whether this performance is clearing the way for stations like Channel 4 to cash in is an open question, but it certainly seems that DeHaven has more money to play with than Rockford did. Not only was he allowed to open up his wallet for Benemann, but word has it that another high-profile anchor currently at another station could wind up at Channel 4 soon. And no, I can't tell you which one.

At the same time, big bucks are being spent pimping Channel 4 news on cable. During the average evening, channel surfers can hardly avoid seeing such promos, no matter where they stop to rest their trigger finger. "We're hitting the CNNs and the USAs, but we're also hitting a lot more," DeHaven says. "We can cover nine, ten, eleven networks over the span of a night." Just as important, he goes on, the content of the promotions has been entirely altered. "The way we used to promote was very image-oriented: 'Try this and you'll feel good.' Now it's focused on immediate benefit. It's a call to action: 'If you watch us, this is what you're going to see.'"

Indeed, anchors Molly Hughes and Bill Stuart (who will have a diminished profile after Benemann comes aboard in August) spend these ads specifically teasing stories that will appear in the late newscast that evening. Many stations do likewise for promos shown on their own frequency, but DeHaven wanted to broaden the concept. "A year ago, we couldn't do this," he says. "But we worked with the folks here and told them, 'This is important to us, because it has immediacy to it.' And luckily, it's become technologically easier to do. Now we can produce a spot at six o'clock, run it through a wire and have it on the air wherever we want at seven. That's allowed us to be much more aggressive in the amount of spots we're running and the messages in them."

Better yet, the newscasts these commercials hype have actually grown more substantive -- an advance that may stun those familiar with DeHaven's recent stint at WBBM-TV in Chicago, where he had a reputation in some quarters for caring more about slogans than hard news. Again, money has something to do with it. Channel 4 has staffed up, especially at 10 p.m. Simply put, DeHaven says, "We have more reporters, more people on the street. If you're watching at ten o'clock, you'll see a minimum of five reporters. The other stations aren't doing that."

Also receiving more attention is the Channel 4 investigative unit, which consists of Brian Maass and Rick Sallinger. Both reporters have done impressive work of late, with Maass in particular scoring on a slew of significant stories. Among other things, he unearthed videotape of a handcuffed and shackled Denver County Jail inmate being tossed around by his keepers and showed how one-time-use surgical instruments are sometimes being improperly reprocessed. But his biggest recent coup was a February series that caught command-level officers with the Denver Police Department skipping out during work hours to make extra shekels directing traffic.

For the folks at Channel 7, the perennial also-ran among Denver news purveyors with old-school network affiliations, the bang Channel 4 got out of Maass's cops scoop must have been exceptionally galling. At the same time Maass was confronting crossing guards, Channel 7 was devoting huge chunks of airtime to the scandal at the Air Force Academy. Protestations aside, the station didn't break this story -- Westword reporter Julie Jargon was out with the basic information two weeks earlier -- but its presentation was strong, and it deserves kudos for bringing the subject to the halls of Congress. On top of that, the station recently imported anchor Mike Landess, who's just as smooth and slick today as he was when he was helping to generate huge audiences for Channel 9 in the '80s and beyond. Nonetheless, Channel 7 didn't receive any tangible ratings boost in February, and its overall May numbers were numbingly mediocre. At this point, it seems that nothing short of having Landess and weatherman Marty Coniglio dress up as Chippendales dancers will get most Denverites to tune in.

 

Like John Ferrugia, his counterpart at Channel 7, Maass received the original tip that led to the unraveling of the Air Force Academy mess. "We responded very quickly to it and tried to talk to those people, but for whatever reason, it didn't happen for us," he says. "It was well done by Channel 7. They've done a terrifically thorough job with it." On the other hand, Maass has a theory about why many of his reports resonated with viewers in ways that perhaps the academy exposé didn't. "The Air Force story started in Colorado Springs, but it's really a big, national story," he says. "And we've been doing stories that are very local, that have a lot of impact for people here and are literally happening in their back yards. These stories hit home with people because they're about real issues. It's not testing your kitchen counter for bacteria."

Maass, who's been at Channel 4 for nineteen years, says he appreciates how often his stories have been featured on the promos with which the station has blanketed the airwaves, but he's even happier about what he sees as a renewed commitment to the investigative process. Whereas some stations have cut back on long-term projects, he's got his own team of helpers (producer Carisa Scott and photographer Bob Pearce), the freedom to work at his own pace and the sense that the boss is behind him.

"Walt is a huge supporter of what we do," Maass says. "He believes in it from a marketing standpoint, and that's a significant departure from the way things were done before he got here -- and hopefully it's paying dividends. But he also believes in it from a journalism standpoint. For people who are journalism purists, it's great, because it goes back to the roots of what we should be all about, which is breaking important news stories."

Channel 9 may have come to the same realization; in March, the station hired a new investigator, Chip Yost, to supplement Woodward and fellow longtimer Ward Lucas. Signs also point to a speeding-up of the search for a new anchor to team with Arakawa. A May column by the Post's Joanne Ostrow said that Sardella might keep his chair through the end of the year, which, if it happens, could drive him over the edge permanently. Luckily for him, insiders say that possible successors are being paraded through the station to test with Arakawa, including Steve Daniels, a former Dateline correspondent who's currently an anchor with WTVD in Raleigh, North Carolina.

If Daniels gets the nod, he'll know the competition well, since he once did weekends at Channel 4. This background could add even more spice to a TV-news scrap that may finally get out of the middle rounds. Let the slugfest begin.

Weekly vs. Weekly: "Fact or Fiction?," the May 22 edition of this column, made mention of complaints levied against the Boulder Weekly by the Salt Lake Weekly earlier this year. In January, the Boulder publication purchased the rights to print a Salt Lake Weekly story about the Sierra Club by writer Shane McCammon, but a few weeks later, it ran a version of the piece under the byline of reporter Ron Bain instead. A note at the bottom of the article dismissed McCammon as a mere contributor even though he was much more than that; the last several paragraphs reprinted his writing word for word.

After the Westword item on this brouhaha was published, Bain called to clarify his actions, stressing that he in no way wanted to take credit for work he hadn't done. Instead, he reveals, that credit was foisted upon him.

Bain says Wayne Laugesen, the Weekly's editor, purchased McCammon's story with the intention of localizing it himself, but ran out of time; Laugesen had already announced that he was stepping down as editor, which he did about a month later. According to Bain, Laugesen gave him the story on January 20 and asked him to have it ready for the January 23 cover. "I got right on it," Bain says. "I got quotes from both sides of the issue -- former members of the Sierra Club from Boulder County who were very unhappy with them, and longtime members from Boulder County who were very happy with them." After he turned in the story, Laugesen wrote a new opening paragraph that Bain found to be "a bit inflammatory and goading. It was written in a style I wouldn't use and said things I wouldn't say." Bain suggested that Laugesen put his own name in the byline and says he "also thought it wasn't fair to the person who wrote the original story. I thought his name should be in the byline, too." Laugesen disagreed, and because Bain was in line for a full-time writing position that he expected to become official in April, he didn't feel he could pitch too much of a fit. "The paper ran it with only my byline, over my protestations," Bain says.

 

Laugesen, who is contributing occasional columns to the Weekly, has a hazy memory about what happened with the Sierra Club story, but in a heartwarming example of forthrightness, he takes responsibility anyway. "There was never any intent to pass off someone else's intellectual property as our own, because that's wrong. So evidently, I was just sloppy in my work," Laugesen says. He adds, "Ron would never try to pass off someone else's work as his own. He has far too much integrity for that. I'm certain that this was an error or a misunderstanding on the part of the editor at the time, and that was me."

Unfortunately for Bain, the job at the Weekly he'd been anticipating failed to materialize after Laugesen resigned, so he's looking for work. Potential employers should look upon Laugesen's words above as a letter of recommendation.


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