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The Message

Mark Cornetta has big shoes to fill at Channel 9.
Tony Gallagher

"I've never been one to want credit," says Mark Cornetta, who's scheduled to become Channel 9's president and general manager July 15. "I've liked being a part of a successful team. And feeling good about the accomplishments the team has made is what matters, not someone assigning credit or blame to me."

That's lucky, because Cornetta finds himself in something of a no-win situation thanks to the shadow cast by Roger Ogden, his predecessor. Ogden is arguably the most successful executive in modern Denver television history, and as he splits to take over as president and CEO of the broadcasting division at Gannett (the media conglomerate that owns Channel 9), the station's 10 p.m. newscast remains atop the ratings, where it's been for just short of three decades. If this streak ends anytime soon, criticism will land on Cornetta whether he did anything wrong or not -- and if it continues, observers are likely to praise the system Ogden put in place, not the man who succeeded him.

Even so, Cornetta seems less concerned with establishing a track record of his own than he does with lengthening the one established by his old boss. In his words, "failure is not an option."

A Long Island native, Cornetta earned a communications degree at St. John's University, and upon graduation took a position at an advertising agency that hyped "Van de Kamp's frozen entrees, Golden Blossom Honey and Budget Gourmet," he recalls. After eighteen months, he decided that he wanted to try sales at a media outlet, and when he didn't get any bites in the New York area, he reached out to a connection at Denver's Channel 4. The person who subsequently interviewed him was none other than Ogden, then Channel 4's GM. Ogden had started his TV career as a reporter with Channel 9 in 1968, working his way up to news director by 1981, when Channel 4 induced him to jump ship.

Cornetta was hired as an entry-level account executive in 1984. After three years, he made a lateral move to Channel 9, under the theory that he'd have a better chance of moving into management there. He was right: In 1988, he became Channel 9's national sales manager, and after a two-year stint in that position and another two as local sales manager, he was named general sales manager. Then, in 1997, Ogden came back into his life. Ogden had left Channel 4's helm in 1995 to head NBC Europe in London; after two years, he opted for a return to Channel 9, whose network affiliation switched from ABC to NBC around the time he headed overseas.

Cornetta was higher in the command chain at Channel 9 than he'd been at Channel 4, and he's had the opportunity to work closely with Ogden over the past eight years. Predictably, he's full of compliments. "I'd like to take his brain and transplant it into my head," Cornetta says, "because he spills more information in a lunch conversation than most people do in an entire year."

When it came to his most recent career switch, Ogden wasn't nearly as forthcoming, at least in public. The Denver dailies have regularly printed tributes to his greatness whether they were needed or not, and in the most recent hagiography, published in the April 2 Rocky Mountain News, he told writer Dusty Saunders that he'd turned down mid-'80s overtures to take on NBC News' presidency because "I've always considered myself a local broadcaster. I wouldn't be comfortable working outside of Denver on a full-time basis." He apparently grew more relaxed about the prospect soon thereafter. In May, Ogden accepted the Gannett gig, and while his family is staying in Denver for now, his base of operations will be Washington, D.C. This about-face opened the door for Cornetta, who says he doesn't plan any major shakeups.

"On the surface, you look at the station and say, ŒDon't screw it up. Nothing is broken.' And that's really true," he contends. "We need to continue to be on the cutting edge and innovative in our approach to reporting the news and distributing it. We're not a station that rests on its laurels. But I don't think anything culturally here needs to change. I don't look at this job as trying to fix anything. Nothing needs to be fixed."

Of course, Cornetta won't be able to simply put the station on autopilot and proceed to the nearest country club. Ogden maintained Channel 9's late-night-news lead despite a 75 percent turnover among the on-camera team: Anchor Ed Sardella retired, forecaster Mike Nelson took a better offer at Channel 7, and sports dude Tony Zarrella was disappeared following a raft of personal problems, leaving Adele Arakawa as the sole survivor. Still, imported anchor Bob Kendrick seems to be more of a place holder than a permanent solution, and Drew Soicher, Zarrella's replacement, has created an unexpected backlash among some viewers who don't like his irreverent approach. These issues could boost direct competitors such as Channel 7, whose strong performance in the 5 p.m. weekday slot will be put to the test next year when it loses Oprah, the show's mega-popular lead-in, and Channel 4, which is still waiting for its heavy investment in gear, sets and programming (including, yes, Oprah) to truly pay off.

Dealing with such issues will be a challenge for Cornetta, whose expertise is in sales, not news. He says he'll lean heavily on the experience of longtime news director Patti Dennis in this regard, and also push forward with brand-extension projects such as "Weather PLUS," a new 24-hour weather station on Comcast channel 249. (Channel 7's similar operation is two notches down the dial, at channel 247.) He also expects more content to be available on the station's website, www.9news.com, where viewers can already stream loads of stories if they're willing to sit through a brief commercial in advance. "We're looking for advertiser support" for features like this one, Cornetta says. "We're certainly testing the waters."

Parting those waters won't be necessary, since no miracles are required to save Channel 9. "I'm in a different situation than someone coming into a number three or four station in the market. It requires more subtlety than anything else. I don't expect everything will be perfect, but I'll learn very quickly what not to do the next time." And in the meantime, he says, "I'll try to fill one of Roger's shoes, anyway."

Enter the Dogmother: And now, let us take a moment to appreciate Denver Post columnist Cindy Rodriguez, who, unexpectedly, has evolved into the new Chuck Green. Rodriguez hasn't erred as often as the dog-loving former Post scribe, but of late, her increasingly wacky writing has inspired a question often prompted by Green: How on earth did this get in the newspaper?

Consider May 31's "My Blog: A Chewy Tell-All," in which Rodriguez simulates a personal blog that she describes as "a place online to write musings and random thoughts about irksome things without having to worry about making a point." She then rambles incoherently about assorted flotsam, including the moment when her pooch, Chewy, licks the corner of her mouth in search of stray jelly, before concluding "Good thing I don't have a blog." Amen! Just as nutty was June 14's "Kicking Out the ŒShe-Haw,'" an attack on the Donkey Den for its crass name and rudely monikered food items. In a twisted attempt to make men realize how offensive it is to joke about violence against women, she asks readers to "imagine a place called The Bobbitt BBQ," featuring a menu of "wieners" and a staff of "hunky waiters wearing tight T-shirts emblazoned with a drawing of a woman clutching a knife." Rodriguez then makes the clueless prediction that plenty of dudes would protest such a joint. Actually, it's likelier that the place would become a cutting-edge hit. At this very moment, some canny entrepreneur is probably huddling with John Wayne Bobbitt to launch the concept.

If the eatery comes to fruition, Rodriguez deserves a piece of the action, not to mention kudos for her prose. She's responsible for some of the funniest stuff in the Post. Who cares if much of the humor is unintentional?


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