The Message

Christopher Smith

Visitors to the Denver Tech Center headquarters of Altitude Sports & Entertainment, a new network owned by millionaire investor Stan Kroenke, might expect it to resemble Athens a couple of weeks prior to the start of this year's Summer Olympics. After all, Greek organizers were still desperately trying to complete construction projects on the eve of the Games, despite a head start of seven years -- and it's been less than seven months since the first announcement about Altitude was made.

But aside from a few "wet paint" signs near the entrance to its studio, Altitude appears ready for air, and a sense of calm emanates from the staffers rehearsing in advance of its September 4 debut. Vice President of Operations Dave Zur proudly shows how he and his comrades transformed space previously occupied by a cell-phone company and a credit firm into a high-tech broadcasting facility, and he points out the benefits of sharing the building with Crown Media, which beams the Hallmark Channel to the United States, Europe and beyond using the same gear that's at his disposal.

So why is Altitude spokesman Tom Philand downplaying the network's bow by referring to it as a "soft launch"? For one thing, marquee games featuring the revitalized Denver Nuggets, which Kroenke owns, won't be on the air for weeks, and contests starring the Colorado Avalanche, another Kroenke property, are likely to be delayed indefinitely. Most observers believe that the impending National Hockey League season won't start until January, at the earliest, and may very well be canceled entirely because of nettlesome labor issues.

Just as important, Altitude has not yet worked out a carriage agreement with Comcast, the area's largest cable provider, and Philand admits that "it would be somewhat shocking" to him if everything was resolved by early September. Subscribers to EchoStar's DISH Network, which has placed Altitude on Channel 410, will be able to check out the network's fare from day one, and thanks to an assortment of agreements with smaller cable companies, Colorado viewers in Lakewood and parts of Summit, Weld and Eagle counties will, too. Moreover, the Rocky Mountain News reports that a compact with Adelphia Communications in Colorado Springs is pending; Philand says an announcement on that subject is coming on August 26. But Comcast is the big fish, and it's not yet on the line.

Such factors have increased the degree of difficulty when it comes to making Altitude a success. In Philand's words, "A lot of people have fairly stated that this is a risky proposition."

He's not exaggerating. A handful of boutique sports networks have done well -- most notably, the YES Network, which is anchored by New York Yankees games. However, several high-profile sports nets have flopped, usually because they couldn't get on cable. Action Sports Cable Network, which showcased Microsoft founder Paul Allen's NBA team, the Portland Trail Blazers, folded in 2002 after sixteen months of operation because it failed to ink a pact with AT&T Broadband, Portland's primary cable company. A similar fate befell the questionably named Victory Sports One, a venue for baseball's Minnesota Twins that went belly-up in less than a year because the only cable outfits that picked it up weren't in major metropolitan areas.

Fox Sports Net's Rocky Mountain branch owes much of its prominence in the marketplace to the Nuggets and the Avs, whose broadcast rights it owned through the end of last season -- and as these contracts neared expiration, Fox execs offered big dollars to Kroenke for renewals. Although Philand doesn't mention specific numbers, he says, "Stan walked away from an awful lot of guaranteed money. But at the end of the day, he felt we could do more. I think that speaks to his commitment to better bring his brands to the marketplace."

At first glance, the loss of the Nuggets and the Avs seems like a disaster for Fox Sports, because its only remaining major Denver-area pro-sports collective is the Colorado Rockies, who've sucked longer and harder than Jenna Jameson. Yet after the Altitude announcement, Fox Sports extended its contract with the Rockies, for a variety of surprisingly sensible reasons. Even though the Rockies remain near the bottom of the National League West standings, Fox personnel say their season-to-date ratings are up by approximately 15 percent over last year's tally, and by a point or two above the numbers generated by Nuggets broadcasts in 2003-2004. As a bonus, the Rockies appear in about twice as many games per annum as the Nuggets or Avs, excluding the playoffs, thereby filling up many more hours of airtime.

The folks at Fox have also established a firmer tie to the biggest kahuna in Denver pro sports, the Broncos. Channel 4, the official Broncos station, airs a pre-game show called Countdown to Kickoff at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. Now, at that program's conclusion, anchors will hype another half hour of pre-game coverage on Fox Sports that will originate from Channel 4's studio but be co-hosted by Fox Sports anchor Dave Benz. After the game, the process will repeat. Fox Sports also gets to replay four Broncos pre-season games up to three times apiece. Sure, it sounds tedious, but there are probably enough Broncos diehards to make the scheme work as a supplement to Fox Sports' solid lineup of homegrown shows -- like the Rocky Mountain Sports Report, anchored by Marc Soicher and Tim Ring.  

In a Gollum-like maneuver, Altitude tried to steal Ring, but he recently re-upped with Fox Sports, as did Rockies play-by-play man Drew Goodman. Since Goodman also called Nuggets games, Altitude has hired Chris Marlowe -- a veteran broadcaster and actor (in the '70s, he was a regular on the soap opera Love of Life) who's currently narrating volleyball coverage for NBC at the Olympics -- to talk about Carmelo alongside commentators Scott Hastings and Bill Hanzlik.

"Between the Broncos agreement, the increased number of Rockies games and ancillary programs we do that go along with collegiate events, we'll actually do more local product that we did a year ago," says Tim Griggs, Fox Sports vice president and general manager. Add the Fox Sports contract to televise games featuring college football's Big 12 conference, which encompasses the University of Colorado Buffaloes, and network productions such as The Best Damn Sports Show Period, and Fox Sports will have no problem loading up its schedule, even without the Nuggets and the Avs.

To do likewise, Altitude has had to run more than a few scramble drills. On top of the Nuggets and the Avs, Kroenke also owns the Colorado Rapids soccer squad and the Colorado Mammoth lacrossers, and Altitude will afford them lots of exposure. Furthermore, the network has lined up a slew of secondary attractions that range from decent-sized to extremely modest. The upper tier of these draws includes events from the Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences, as well as the Colorado Springs Sky Sox (the Rockies' Triple-A sibling). The lower rung is occupied by assorted teams that play under the Colorado High School Activities Association banners, and the Colorado Eagles, a minor-league hockey team from Loveland.

This mix explains why Altitude's opening-month schedule looks like the slate for ESPN 8, "The Ocho," the fictional network from the Ben Stiller movie Dodgeball: lots of Canadian football, plus frequent airings of Billiard Club Television, Getting Fit With Denise Austin and a documentary about Altitude that spotlights Governor Bill Owens, who'll moderate a monthly "sports and outdoor highlights" production known for now as The Bill Owens Show. The first episode is tentatively set for October 17.

Spokesman Philand doesn't argue that Altitude's initial roster will revolutionize sports TV as we know it. "We have a lot of repetition out there to literally test the network as much as anything else," he says. "That's why I want to diminish expectations for September." In that vein, the network is trying not to attempt too much too soon. For instance, Altitude doesn't figure to launch a studio show like Rocky Mountain Sports Report for at least its first year of operation.

Fox Sports, for its part, would love viewers to contrast its output with Altitude's from the very beginning. On September 3, on the eve of the Altitude coming-out party, Best Damn Sports Show Period will broadcast live from the CU campus, with regulars such as Tom Arnold and John Salley slated to be on hand. Then, on September 4, when Altitude plans to twice screen a Rapids game, Fox Sports counters with the annual gridiron battle between the CU Buffs and the Colorado State University Rams.

Griggs is confident that Fox Sports "will be able to put out quality programs with high entertainment value on a consistent basis," but he scrupulously avoids bad-mouthing Altitude. No wonder, since he'd love to reestablish ties with the Nuggets and the Avs if Altitude dies. After the collapse of the channels featuring the Portland Trail Blazers and the Minnesota Twins, those teams quickly relocated to the nearest Fox Sports affiliate, and their Colorado brethren would probably do the same.

The key to preventing this from happening is a covenant with Comcast, whose spokeswoman, Cindy Parsons, doesn't tip the company's hand. "Comcast is in discussions with Altitude," she says. "We are examining carriage possibilities that would keep all of our customers' best interests in mind."

It behooves Philand to be more effusive than that, and he is. "The negotiations are going better than what we had hoped for," he says, "and we've gotten farther down the road than anyone would have predicted. Getting DISH done made it more compelling for people to pay attention, and DISH has aggressively marketed that they are the exclusive way to get the teams in Denver-metro right now. That helps us in negotiations."  

Meanwhile, back at Altitude's studio, the network's staffers, including a handful who've jumped over from Fox Sports, are already working together like a veteran crew. All that's left is to find out how many people will be able to watch what they're doing.

All hail the Coachmen: Members of the Denver Broncos are undoubtedly happier that training camp ended on August 20 than are the owners of B&B RV, a local motor-home dealer. The company provided Channel 7 sports staffers with a Coachmen recreational vehicle to use during camp, and on numerous occasions sports anchors Lionel Bienvenu and Steve Gottsegen not only mentioned this fact, but waxed rhapsodic about the luxurious surroundings for extended periods of time. On one occasion, the Coachmen was used as the setting for a skit; the gas guzzler was portrayed as an exclusive venue with a bouncer who admitted two flirty trollops but kept Bienvenu and four Broncos on the outside looking in. The gushing even slopped over onto in-studio banter, with news anchor Mike Landess leading into a sports segment by asking Bienvenu, "What about the Coachmen?"

As viewers know, advertising has been steadily eating into sportscasts for years. Take Channel 2, which ends each evening's sports report with the "Dodge Play of the Day." Still, the references usually stop at the mention of the product and a glimpse of its logo. At Channel 7, though, Bienvenu and Gottsegen gleefully served as full-bore pitchmen, much like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz did during the so-called Golden Age of Television, when they'd step away from scenes on I Love Lucy to tell the studio audience and viewers at home why they couldn't get enough of Philip Morris cigarettes. Arnaz wasn't just blowing smoke; he died of lung cancer in 1986.

"You may be overstating it a bit," responds Byron Grandy, Channel 7's news director. He insists that the station's deal with B&B only called for the company to be mentioned and didn't specify how much, if any, whoring would be done by the talent. Bienvenu and Gottsegen just happened to notice how much nicer the Coachmen was than the trailers used by most other news organizations at camp, and they turned it into a running gag. "We've always tried to add some levity to camp coverage," Grandy notes. "I don't think in sports that it's a big deal."

As a bonus, the B&B experience opens up new revenue possibilities. Imagine how much the station might rake in if Landess took a break between headlines to talk about the shampoo he uses to give his hair so much bounce and luster.

Channel 7 could use the dough because it's spending plenty on gizmos for Mike Nelson, the former Channel 9 forecaster who appears on the station for the first time on August 30. "We're building a brand-new weather center for him -- an operating weather center that will allow him to be in a broadcast facility and a working facility at the same time," Grandy says. "And we went out and bought him the latest forecasting equipment you can have in a TV station." Fresh graphics and branding are on tap, too, and two new hires will be made this fall to supplement Nelson and mainstay Richard Ortner. They'll replace the late Pam Daale (she died in April) and Marty Coniglio, who landed at Channel 9 after his former station reached out to Nelson. Grandy emphasizes that Nelson and Coniglio weren't traded for one another, but an understanding between the outlets allowed each of them to go on the air sooner than their contracts would otherwise have allowed. The stations even coordinated their press releases, which were sent out simultaneously. Grandy was pleased with the compromise. "Obviously, we wanted to get Mike on the air as soon as possible," he says.

Do you think he'd mind advertising some umbrellas?

Never-ending stories: On August 17, to the surprise of no one, but to the disappointment of many nearby residents, Jefferson County commissioners voted unanimously to approve the construction of a large broadcasting tower on Lookout Mountain. The officials had passed down an identical decision last year, but a judge, reacting to a lawsuit from Canyon Area Residents for the Environment and the City of Golden, ordered them to take another look at some information. When CARE spokeswoman Deb Carney is asked if they did so with an open mind, her reply is succinct: "No." Carney promises more legal action in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the tower from being erected.  

Another grassroots effort has already paid off. As Rocky Mountain News editor/publisher/president John Temple recently noted in these pages, he sometimes removes certain comic strips from his paper to gauge whether there's still an audience for them. The Rocky pulled this trick on August 16 with "Alley Oop," and so many readers protested that on August 19 the paper not only reinstated the venerable caveman, but ran strips from the previous three days by way of apology.


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