Wake-up Call
J. Hadley Hooper

Wake-up Call

Steve Grund may be the news director at Channel 2, but a big part of his approach is pure show business. And why not? News is an important profit center for stations, and those profits go up, up, up when more people tune in, just as they do with entertainment programming. Getting the details right is important, sure, but so is getting butts into those recliners.

Hence, Grund doesn't shy away from mentioning his background (he studied acting at Juilliard), and he slips easily into show-biz patter. While speaking about WB2day, the new 6-to-9 a.m., Monday-through-Friday info block he's readying for a January 17 debut, he says that he didn't so much hire people as "cast" them.

Likewise, he describes his conception of the station's latest offering using terms that are considerably more flamboyant than, for instance, "news value." As he puts it, "I want WB2day to really reflect Colorado mornings. Diamond. Crystal. Crisp. Open. A gosh-it's-really-great-to-live-here kind of feeling. And I also want it to be a community platform. If we talk about a great lasagne recipe, I hope after the show we get a call from some lady in an Italian restaurant who tells us, 'I make a better lasagna than that.' And we'll say, 'Great. Come on over and do it.'"

The investment being made in WB2day by Tribune Broadcasting, the company that owns Channel 2, is significant: Approximately $3 million has been allotted for new sets, new graphics and new music that will also be used for the 9 p.m. newscast, as well as a whopping 33 new "cast members" headed up by Jeff Peterson, formerly with Tribune-owned WGNO-TV in New Orleans, and Laura Thornquist, most recently employed by Billings, Montana's KTVQ-TV. Peterson and Thornquist will co-anchor the program, with weekend weathercaster/reporter Amy Freeze handling forecasting duties and Jonathan Steele of KOSI-FM (another Tribune asset) dishing out traffic data from inside a fixed-wing aircraft circling the city. At this point, there are no plans to have a full-time sportscaster on duty, but Grund isn't closing off any options. After all, he's planning to launch an as-yet-unnamed 11 a.m. weekday news show on March 27, just over two months after WB2day bows, and he's not sure who'll be sitting at the anchor desk for that one.

"As we get closer to it starting, we'll sit back and say, 'How are things in the morning going? Did we plan right? Do we need to get more people?' And then we'll decide."

These moves are being made in response to the new economic realities facing independent TV outlets. "Stations like ours have had to redefine themselves over the past ten years," Grund says, "because we've seen the staples of independent television go to cable. Go back ten years and prime-time movies were generating giant numbers at Channel 2, but that's all on cable now. Same with sports: When the Colorado Rockies first started out, they needed us, but now they're on Fox Sports Rocky Mountain. And kids' programming is all going to places like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, where the packaging and pricing is much friendlier."

This last comment is something of an exaggeration: Channel 2 is an affiliate of the WB (hence the WB2day moniker), which currently airs the hottest children's program in the galaxy, Pokémon. Next month, in fact, WB2day will swallow up Pokémon's 7 a.m. time slot, thereby forcing children throughout the area to actually speak to their parents prior to school.

Still, Grund knows that even Pokémon won't last forever, leaving stations like his to look for other types of programming. "What will be left that we can do that cable can't do?" he asks. "Localism -- and that means news."

Grund doesn't have to look far for a.m. role models. Chicago's WGN, Tribune's flagship TV property, and KTLA, the company's Los Angeles possession, have achieved strong financial results from morning shows launched this decade, with KTLA's ratings frequently beating those earned by network programs such as Today and Good Morning America.

"God smiled on KTLA," Grund says. "I'm not trying to be funny here, but every tragedy in the world has happened in Southern California since they launched in the morning: earthquakes, fires, O.J., Rodney King. There were so many reasons to watch morning TV in L.A., and KTLA was the only game in town -- and they went through the roof.

"Now, I don't want to wish tragedy on Denver," Grund insists, "but there's something to say for being able to have a local focus all morning, instead of just at the top and the bottom of each hour. It'll be interesting to see how the other stations will react."

At this point, Channel 2's competitors don't have a lot of wiggle room. KDVR-TV/Channel 31, the Fox affiliate, is gearing up to introduce a 9 p.m. newscast to compete directly against Channel 2 (Grund claims to be looking forward to the challenge) and has just announced its first hire, "troubleshooter" Tom Martino, who recently left Channel 4 amid self-righteous accusations that the station had tied his hands. Because Channel 31's news operation won't be up and running until springtime at the earliest, however, a local morning show is a long ways off.

For their parts, Channel 9 and Channel 7 remain committed to network fare, as does Channel 4, which recently dropped a locally originating 7-to-8 a.m. broadcast to make room for The Early Show with Bryant Gumbel, a program whose mediocre performance has already resulted in the firing of at least four staffers. For these reasons, January presents what Grund sees as "a terrific window of opportunity for us" to participate in what is a system-wide strategy at Tribune. The corporation's Indianapolis station, WXIN, joined the morning parade last year, and its Seattle base of operations, KCPQ, will be stepping into line around the same time as Channel 2.

News is important to him, Grund says, and so are issues like community safety; indeed, he helped facilitate the capture of ax murderer William Cody Neal, an acquaintance of Grund's who called the news director shortly after committing the heinous acts for which Neal has been sentenced to death ("Charmin' Billy," October 14 and 21). But Grund doesn't pretend that news of the harder variety will be a major part of the WB2day mix unless there's live reporting of a breaking story. "A morning show has to be driven by information," he allows. "You've got to provide accurate and timely traffic and weather and tell viewers about any important event that's going to affect how their day will proceed. But that's got to be balanced with other things."

In a reference to the November 25 Westword article, "Show & Sell," which documented how large percentages of late-night Denver newscasts are more devoted to selling than delivering the news, he jokes that WB2day will consist of "commercials. Nothing but commercials." But he's serious when he notes later that the new program will be "consumerism-driven. I want it to tell you about something you didn't know" -- presumably including new products and services. Keep your wallet handy.

Over the course of the weeks leading up to WB2day's entrée, Grund plans to closely follow the theatrical model. The new set should be completed by the first of the year, after which Grund will put his cast through two weeks of rehearsals, just as he would in preparing a Broadway musical, to be followed by a couple more low-key weeks on the air (think previews) before the grand opening in February, which just happens to be a sweeps month, when ratings help determine advertising rates. His goal prior to the big coming-out party is to create chemistry and camaraderie between the stars and the supporting players: "I'd love to see one of the people shooting the show get insulted by the anchor and then leave his camera position, step out onto the set and say, 'You talking to me?'" Not that he's hoping for a Denver equivalent to Jerry Springer: "I want it to feel very welcoming -- at times irreverent, but never over the edge to indulgent and clowny."

There's no business like the news business...

In the continuing brouhaha over the videotapes made by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Denver Post is doing its best to play catch-up: The publication ran a massive photo of Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone and two Columbine-related stories on its December 15 cover, and teased a whopping six more. But the newspaper remains a minor player in this latest episode largely because it was extremely slow out of the gate. An example? On December 12, after word leaked that Time magazine had gotten access to the tapes from the Jeffco sheriff's department and planned to splash reports about them across its next issue, the folks at the Rocky Mountain News, who that very day published the first of a three-part valentine to the department's Columbine investigation team, demanded to get a look, too, and were promptly allowed to do so. The Post did not make a similar request, however, and as a result, its reporters didn't see the footage for themselves until December 13, after the News had already sketched it out at tremendous length. Oops.

Then again, maybe the Post had more important priorities. On the 12th, its above-the-fold front-page story was "Rough Going for Diamond Sales," a Sean Kelly article about low demand for singer Neil Diamond's December 31 Pepsi Center gig. Did the Post's financial stake in the arena -- it's a "founding partner" of the Pepsi Center -- have anything to do with this astoundingly prominent placement, which made it abundantly clear that good seats were still available? Don't hold your breath waiting for a confession. Still, there's no question that the paper has a vested interest in the success of Mr. Song Sung Blue's extravaganza: Last week, Post employees, a big percentage of whom will have to work on New Year's Eve, received a buy-one-get-one-free offer for the concert. Makes those of you who shelled out $1,000 a ticket for the show feel pretty special, doesn't it?

On the topic of overpaying, here's an update from the newspaper-subscription war.

Like far too many men in today's society, I have absolutely nothing to do with paying the bills beyond handing my paycheck to my beloved twice a month. For that reason, I was surprised to discover a few weeks ago that my wife had just paid a bill of over $76 for six months' worth of the Rocky Mountain News in spite of Denver Post claims that the News's circulation gains were made because the company was practically giving its product away. She also felt ripped off -- as subscribers since 1990, she figured that we should be getting the discounts, not newcomers -- and she decided to do something about it by phoning the News's circulation department. Moments later, she told the operator who wound up with her call that she had heard about a number of subscription deals that might save us considerable dough. The operator responded by offering us a year's worth of the News for $64 -- a lot less expensive than what we'd been paying, but not nearly as cheap as Post publisher Gerald Grilly had implied in a series of ads that ran in his paper. But when my wife pushed a little harder, the propositions got better: $4.99 for a year's worth of the Saturday, Sunday and Monday papers, and $6.24 per annum for six days a week, with the choice of which day to skip left to us. My wife accepted the latter proposition, and was subsequently told that we were now paid in full through March 24, 2004. A second call in early December revealed that four years is the maximum the News will credit -- and that we should soon be receiving a reimbursement of around $50 to make up the difference.

The Post charged us more for its pride and joy, although not by a tremendous amount: The best my wife could do was $22.98 a year to get newspapers six days a week, with Tuesdays the forced omission. The News, meanwhile, has been an even bigger bargain than we thought: We're not supposed to receive the Saturday edition, but it's shown up most weeks anyhow. So take my advice, longtime subscribers: Call the News today and demand more savings than you've been getting. You'll be glad you did -- because the powers-that-be obviously care a helluva lot more about the numbers in their circulation reports than the ones from their corporate bank account.

One more thing: Last week in this space, Denver Post editor Glenn Guzzo said that while he was reluctant to speak for columnist Diane Carman, whose October 28 line about Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell ("A pimp's a pimp, after all, even if he looks good in a headdress") prompted the Post to run a full-page advertisement/apology, he added, "She's led me to believe that she was pleased with the way the paper was reacting." Doubt it: Shortly after those words appeared in print, Carman sent an internal memo to her fellow Post employees pointing out that, contrary to Guzzo's statement, she wasn't pleased by the apology at all. Stop the presses.

Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.


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