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The Message

Friendly foes: Ed Sardella and Bill Stuart seem happy to be leaving the spotlight.
Mark Manger

Channel 4 news anchor Bill Stuart has spent a big chunk of his career competing directly against Ed Sardella, his opposite number at Channel 9 -- and as Stuart concedes, his own squad's fallen short more often than not. When asked if he feels as if Channel 9's long-term ratings success, particularly when it comes to its 10 p.m. newscast, is sometimes overstated by the area press, Stuart says, "No, I don't. They've done extremely well for a long time. I wouldn't disagree that they've been the dominant station in this market for 25 years."

Even so, Stuart remains a Sardella admirer, calling him "an anchor's anchor, a thinker, a perfectionist, and" -- he slips a slice of wry into his voice -- "perhaps the only guy in the news business harder to get along with than me."

Stuart's kinship with Sardella goes well beyond the sometimes gruff temperament they share. Their careers, which have run parallel to each other for so long, are winding down at the same time, and in much the same way. Note that Sardella, 63, went into semi-retirement in 2000, only to be called back to active duty earlier this year when Jim Benemann, Sardella's original heir apparent, was chosen by Channel 4 to, in essence, fill the same role in respect to Stuart. Moreover, they share an intimate understanding of the day-to-day frustrations of television work. "These jobs can be aggravating," Stuart says, "and I can imagine that after being away from that aggravation for a while, going straight back into it would be hard."

Sardella, who has kind words for Stuart, too, grants that "aggravation was part of the reason I quit," and he says there have been some "tough moments" since his return. "But the management has bent over backwards to make it work. I have no complaints, especially now that it's clear the end is in sight."

Indeed, both men are getting ready to employ exit strategies after more than a quarter-century in front of Denver-based TV cameras. Stuart, 55, recently signed a new three-year contract with Channel 4 that codifies a transition to Benemann, whose Channel 4 debut took place during the recent blackout in the Northeast; he and co-star Molly Hughes, in Manhattan to shoot promos with CBS anchor Dan Rather, offered live updates from the powerless city. When Benemann formally takes over the 10 p.m. chair on September 7, Stuart will concentrate on heading up the 5 p.m. newscast through November 2004, then put in sixteen weeks of unspecified effort during each of the next two years. "I'll do some fill-ins, some special projects," he says. "I'd like to work in a diminished capacity." After a pause for comic effect, he adds, "Perhaps that's what I have..."

Self-deprecating humor is also a Sardella staple these days; he declares his eagerness "to return to retirement parties and the old-timers' picnic." Because Channel 9 just hired Bob Kendrick, most recently with a station in Tampa, Florida, as its new anchor, he'll get the chance before long. The current plan calls for Kendrick to introduce himself to the local audience by helming the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts beginning in late October before placing the 10 p.m. program on his roster following the end of sweeps, the November ratings period. At that juncture, Sardella hopes he'll be able to make a break once and for all. "I have a five-year contract that started in 2000, and it has a work obligation to it," he says. "Depending on how long I continue to work this time, I may very well have worked off the obligation for the entire contract. That's my goal."

The weary, nostalgia-free tone of Sardella's remarks is hardly without precedent. In interviews with the Denver dailies just over three years ago, at the time of his semi-retirement announcement, he spoke frankly and critically about the very medium that had provided him with wealth and celebrity status (a contradiction he acknowledged). "I've always lobbied for what I consider journalism while understanding the necessity of some promotion and marketing," he told the Rocky Mountain News's Dusty Saunders. "Although the conflict has always been there, it's more evident today. It's a losing battle for journalism." His comments to the Denver Post's Joanne Ostrow, who likened him to Howard Beale, the mad-as-hell character from the '70s satire Network, were just as blunt. "TV news is a sales vehicle," Sardella told her. "Even management has come to a point where they don't try to hide it." He described himself as "increasingly a misfit in the industry."

If longtime colleagues were upset by his candor, Sardella says, they didn't share their annoyance with him: "If I had to take a guess, the greater surprise might have been that it was aired in public. I don't think there was any surprise at the sentiment." Had there been, he wouldn't have apologized for what, in his opinion, was an accurate depiction of a profession that's still headed in the wrong direction. "I don't know that it's significantly worse than it was," he maintains, "but I don't know that it's any better. It's just a continuing evolution; it's going down the same path."

 

As for Sardella, he prefers the road less taken. He came to prominence in an era when a high percentage of news personalities looked as if they'd been manufactured by Mattel; Mike Landess, who partnered with Sardella from 1975 to 1993 and is now anchoring Channel 7's newscast, is a prime-time example. Yet Sardella's working-class delivery, pugnacious manner and ethnic looks (yes, he's of Italian stock) didn't hold him back.

After working in low-profile capacities at radio and TV outlets in Oregon, Sardella was hired in 1972 as a reporter and backup sports reader by Channel 7, then a local media juggernaut. He was subsequently sacked for daring to compliment Channel 4 in a newspaper article, but within weeks, he was plucked from the scrap heap by Channel 9, which made him its news co-anchor in early 1975. His pairing with Landess a few months hence made an instant ratings impact the two were able to sustain for the better part of a generation. Along the way, Sardella became the very image of television news in Colorado for uncounted thousands of residents -- not that he gets much of a charge out of being reminded how far back his on-air legacy stretches. Say you grew up watching him on TV and he'll grumble, "I don't want to hear about it."

Neither does Stuart, who's been in the market since 1977, when he joined the Channel 7 staff after stints in Nashville and St. Louis. Many of the folks responsible for making Channel 7 a success in the nascent days of Denver television, including Bob Palmer, Starr Yelland and Warren Chandler, were still on board at the time of his arrival. "They seemed so old to me then," Stuart says, "and now I'm a lot older than they were." Three years later, Stuart bailed out in favor of a gig at a station in Mobile, Alabama, close to where he grew up -- a move that he soon regretted. "I saw my career passing in front of me," he admits. So when Channel 4 tossed him a lifeline in 1981, he grabbed on. He served as a weekend anchor and medical reporter before being teamed with veteran anchor/pre-recorded airport greeter Reynelda Muse and weatherman Ed Greene for a new 6:30 p.m. newscast in 1984. After five years in this position, he was kicked upstairs to the 10 p.m. slot alongside Palmer, and the combination scored with news consumers.

"We knocked Channel 9 off in the late '80s, early '90s," Stuart says. "I still have a coffee cup, or something like that, at home, with all the employees' names on it from the time we won every newscast. And after that, it was neck and neck for a while."

Some of the approaches Channel 4 took to keep pace, like the cloying coverage afforded polar bear cubs Klondike and Snow, didn't exactly meet Edward R. Murrow-type standards. But no amount of playing to the lowest common denominator could lift the station in the wake of a 1995 affiliate switch that affected channels 4, 7 and 9; the changes were set in motion after Fox purchased the rights to much of the National Football League schedule. Channel 4 was hurt most severely by the shuffle, moving from high-flying NBC to CBS, which was mired in the ratings doldrums. Instantly, money got tighter, and the news department felt the squeeze.

"CBS was wringing the pennies out of the place," Stuart recalls. "The story was that CBS said, 'Don't put on promos. Put on commercials.' And that was very shortsighted, because promotion is a key to winning newscasts. Viewers have got to know what you have that night, and they've got to know about your people. So to get rid of promos to sell more commercial time may be great for the bottom line in the short term, but it doesn't do you any good in the long term."

As the end of the decade neared, the pressure placed on Stuart by mediocre Nielsens increased. He figures this situation, among others, caused a case of clinical depression that only came to the fore following the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. "Columbine was the worst thing I've had to cover in my life," he allows. "I've thought a lot about why, because I've covered plane crashes where a hundred people were killed. But in those instances, you say to yourself, 'What bad luck. That's terrible, but accidents happen,' and you justify it in your mind. With Columbine, we could never put our finger on what happened. And when you can't explain something to viewers or even to yourself, it sticks with you."

 

A week or two later, Stuart visited his doctor. "I had no idea I was depressed. I just felt bad. And he said, 'I can turn off the TV when I feel bad, but you can't. You have to be out there, night after night,' and it wouldn't go away. It shouldn't have gone away -- it was the biggest news story in Colorado in years -- but that didn't make it any easier."

The doctor told Stuart to take what he refers to as "a common antidepressant, and I got better fairly quickly. I still take it today." Afterward, Stuart says he told Marv Rockford, Channel 4's vice president and general manager, about his diagnosis, emphasizing that he was already feeling much improved. Approximately a month later, by Stuart's reckoning, Rockford "told me they were going to 'make some changes.' So I hired a lawyer and threatened an Americans With Disabilities Act complaint -- and the next day, I got a letter from CBS saying, 'Forget about it. You're in.'"

That October, word of this incident leaked into the media, with the Rocky portraying an ongoing struggle with management in which Stuart seemed to be using his medical condition to hang on to his 10 p.m. job. Today Stuart suggests that everything had been resolved months earlier and that he never used the press to strengthen his negotiating position. In any event, he rapidly became part of the Columbine narrative, with the tale of his depression appearing in newspapers across the country; he was even interviewed by Howard Kurtz on CNN. The public airing of a private matter didn't bother him, he says. "I didn't get one negative call after this came out, and I heard from a lot of people who told me, 'Thank goodness you're talking about this.' So it may have actually helped some people."

On the other hand, the publicity did no good at all for his relationship with Rockford, whom he met during his Channel 7 days. "We bumped into each other in the halls for two or three years" after the aborted legal showdown, Stuart says. "I'm sure it wasn't a pleasant thing for him, and it was awful for me. But it's over."

True enough: Rockford was shown the door last year, and his replacement, Walt DeHaven, has been given a much freer hand to spend whatever it takes to make Channel 4 truly competitive again. According to Stuart, "Walt came in with new people at CBS with the attitude that 'We have all these big stations around the country. Wouldn't it be better to be number one, instead of number two or three?'" At the same time, Stuart sees a qualitative uptick from a news perspective. "Into the '90s, things got lighter and lighter," he says. "Now I see it getting more serious again."

Despite this shift, Stuart is already looking to a future without TV - and if anything, Sardella seems even more eager to step into the next phase of life. On the air, he frequently looks as if he's counting the minutes until the red light turns off and he can get the hell outta there. These observations don't catch him off-guard: "I have a tendency to wear my emotions on my face. That's my history, and there's nothing unusual that it happened after I left and came back."

In respect to the motivations behind his expressions, Sardella says, "I'm my own worst critic, and I've probably been as mad at myself over what I do as I've been over situations in the newsroom." When he first considered retirement, "my belief was that my skills or my motivation might be slipping, and I didn't want that to happen. That was as integral to my decision as my disillusionment with the industry was."

He's heard rumors that he returned to Channel 9 because he regretted the timing of his retirement but says they're entirely false. "The real reason is that [Channel 9 president and general manager] Roger Ogden called and asked, and I felt an obligation to say yes. When the station celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, they gave two half-century awards; one went to our former chief engineer, Herb Schubarth, and they gave me the other one. And when you're staring at a half-century award and the boss says, 'We need you,' it's difficult to say no. That was at least 90 percent of the decision. If he hadn't called, I wouldn't have come back.

 

"Some people who've quit the business have withdrawal, and I had some of it in 2000," he goes on. "But in a way, this has been the perfect prescription for withdrawal. I got a chance to review my skills and review my philosophy about the business, and I have just confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt that the decision I made before was the correct one."

When he's finally freed from his bondage, Sardella wants to travel with his wife, Sandy, a gallery owner, and is eager to learn how to play a computer-compatible keyboard he purchased around the time of his first retirement. "It's collecting dust," he mutters.

For his part, Stuart will relocate to Alabama after his full-time commitment to Channel 4 expires next year. He expects to commute to Colorado during contract-fulfilling time and doubts that he'd be interested in extending his pact. As he puts it, "I don't want to be dragging my tired old butt in here when I'm 65."


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