Channel 31 execs take cruise, staffers get furloughs

Like television outlets across the country, affiliated stations Channel 31 and The Deuce have had to make some tough choices in the current economic environment. Approximately thirty people were let go last year when the operations when initially combined; a handful of others lost their jobs in March; and several more followed in July, including main Channel 31 weatherman Chris Dunn and ex-Rocky Mountain News reporter Charlie Brennan.

More recently, the station instituted a furlough plan, with most employees being asked to stay home for a week without a paycheck to keep them company. But around the time this plan was getting underway, Dennis Leonard, the stations' vice president and general manager, and a pair of executives accompanied a group of advertisers on a Caribbean cruise.

The juxtaposition of these two happenings seems highly questionable. But Leonard says that when it's viewed in context, the cruise was entirely justifiable, and even helped improve the stations' overall financial picture. Allow him to explain:

According to Leonard, the furloughs were instituted across all stations controlled by Local TV LLC, which owns Channel 31 and The Deuce. In his view, the program shouldn't be seen as an indication that the Denver signals are struggling inordinately. "We've worked very hard making strategic decisions and refining or redefining our staff positions," he allows. "But unfortunately, the entire company hasn't been as successful as we've been in Denver -- especially some of the midwestern markets. So we had to participate, and of the seventeen stations owned by Local TV, we were the last station to go to furloughs."

Every employee was asked to take a week off without pay between mid-August and the end of October, but only those working under a contract -- meaning the on-air talent -- have a choice to comply. Leonard says he doesn't know how many of the stations' personalities have gone the furlough route, or plan to do so. But he points out that he used his furlough last week.

As for the "client incentive trip," as Leonard prefers to call the cruise, it took place in August, but it was booked last October, shortly after his arrival in Denver, when it became clear to him that generating ad revenue would become increasingly difficult as time wore on. "We looked at 2009 and felt it was going to be a challenge," he says. "We knew the automotive industry wasn't going to be advertising as heavily. So we decided to invest in a client-incentive trip to find ways to build some non-traditional revenue." He calls it "purely a strategic move, and quite frankly, if we hadn't done something like this, it could have had a greater negative impact on the station."

Leonard doesn't share the cost of the cruise, but it couldn't have been cheap. It lasted for seven days, with the stations paying the expenses for 32 "customers" (again, his term) as well as Leonard and two sales managers. However, he says, "we had a five-and-a-half-times gain or return on our investment. It helped us make up for some shortfalls in advertising revenues, and helped us build some quality relationships with our customers. It was a tremendous success, and the advertisers essentially paid for the trip through their future investments."

This isn't the only good-news story at Channel 31 and The Deuce, Leonard emphasizes. For example, he's very proud about an increase in public-service and community-outreach efforts by the staff, including a "Faces of Hunger" food drive staged in conjunction with Denver Magazine, and a juvenile diabetes walk that drew a throng of 6,000 -- six times more than last year, by his estimate. Moreover, the dollars generated by the cruise will allow the station to extend its efforts in this arena even further. For that reason, Leonard says, "If I had the decision [to book the cruise] to make over again, we would have done the same thing."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts