Channels 2 and 31 mix it up in Denver

Dennis Leonard, the new vice president and general manager of Channel 31, is a salesman in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Although he's only been on the job for a few short weeks, he seems to know the name of every person he encounters at the Fox affiliate's mammoth Speer Boulevard headquarters. And instead of rushing through the newsroom to avoid making small talk, he happily gabs with a group of staffers. They laugh easily, as if Leonard is one of the gang instead of the man who recently decided to sack thirty people amid the most complex merger in recent Denver television history.

Granted, the people Leonard disappeared weren't Channel 31 family members. They worked for Channel 2, which has essentially admitted defeat in its long-running rivalry with Fox 31. A property of the Chicago-based Tribune Company and purveyor of the CW network's prime-time fare, Channel 2 has been placed directly under Leonard's command; James Zerwekh, Channel 2's previous g.m., was shown the door.

In addition, Channel 2's news operation will be moved from the Tech Center to Channel 31's space in the coming months, with Fox 31 news director Brad Remington serving as its overseer. Carl Bilek, who worked his way up from intern to news director during his lengthy Channel 2 career, was told to clear out right away, as were familiar faces like reporter Ginger Delgado, anchor-reporters Mat Garcia and Vida Urbonas, and sports anchor Lisa Holbrook.

Main anchor Ernie Bjorkman has been asked to work until mid-December – and others will remain on the payroll into the first quarter of next year to help prepare for the relocation and for both stations' transition to high-definition broadcasting. Leonard, who acknowledges that the outlets are behind the curve when it comes to HD, estimates that everything will be ready by spring – a time he anticipates with enthusiasm. "I think in today's climate, the union of the operational and news-gathering systems of these two stations makes a tremendous amount of business sense," he says.

Business cents, too. Like many TV stations, Channel 2 has suffered from sinking revenues in recent years and its situation grew even more complicated when Tribune was taken over in 2007 by Sam Zell, a cost-cutting, tough-talking entrepreneur. Earlier this year, Zell began visiting Tribune operations to share his philosophy, occasionally tossing in a profanity for good measure. During a stop at the Orlando Sentinel, for example, he said, "Fuck you" to one journalist – a moment captured on a video that soon went zipping across cyberspace.

Zell was better behaved when he and other Tribune executives stopped by Channel 2 a few months back. According to Bjorkman, who attended the meeting, "He was pretty subtle. Nobody asked him any questions that pissed him off. He just said, 'We're here to make money,' and talked about what they were going to do next. But all of that's gone by the wayside."

Indeed, Zell's talk did nothing to squelch previously circulating rumors about a local marketing agreement with Channel 31. As a result, few were shocked when a merger was announced in September – although most aren't talking about their reaction or its fallout. Garcia and Urbonas didn't reply to interview requests, while Bilek declined to comment. That leaves Delgado, who only agrees to discuss the circumstances of her dismissal. She says Bilek, who'd been canned the previous day, returned to the station in order to break the news to her and others as gently as he could.

For his part, Bjorkman, a 57-year-old with more than a quarter-century of experience in the Denver market at channels 2 and 7, wanted to continue anchoring until he reached his sixtieth birthday, which explains why he says his ouster came "two or three years earlier than I expected." Nevertheless, he'd already started preparing for life after TV by enrolling in a veterinary technician program at the Community College of Denver. He's interned at clinics and animal hospitals all over the metro area, regularly freaking out customers simply by his presence. When he walks into the lobby, he says, "they think I'm doing an undercover story." In truth, he's simply doing his job, which will become his main gig after he graduates in December and finishes up at Channel 2 that same month. "I need to figure out what to do with my hundred suits and three-hundred ties," he says. "Maybe I'll have a yard sale in the parking lot."

For Leonard, questions about Bjorkman make him a bit uncomfortable, since the topic requires him to be blunt. "I have deep respect for Ernie," he insists, "but it came down to who we thought the best people moving forward in the new configuration would be. And I wasn't sold that Ernie was." Leonard is much happier talking about his broadcasting background (a North Carolina native, he came to Channel 31 after a long stint with WBRC-TV, a Fox affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama) and his love of music. He has a guitar and an amplifier in his office, and his late-night riffing has brought him into contact with plenty of amateur performers on the staff. "The guitar is a good way to break down those walls," he says.

He's attempting to do something similar on the broadcasting level. On October 15, Channel 2's Chris Parente and Channel 31's Chris Tomer were sent to separate ski areas to report about the beginning of the ski season – and both appeared on each station with their distinctive company logos on display. "That may seem confusing," Leonard admits, "but we were able to provide more coverage this morning than if we would have been independent of each other – and we think we'll be able to do even more of that in the future. Instead of having two news teams arriving at a wreck on I-25 to cover the same fatality, we can send one there and send another to cover a different news event."

Of course, the positive aspects of combining forces are offset by a sizable negative: The vast majority of Channel 2's news programming runs opposite Channel 31 shows. So why fund Channel 2's news operation at all? In Leonard's view, keeping Channel 2 in the news game helps to maintain its brand, not to mention its venerable place in Denver television history. "We're not going to desecrate Channel 2," he promises. "But we're going to investigate our options, so that we don't have a lot of areas of head-to-head competition." Hence, he's deep-sixing Channel 2's weeknightly 5:30 p.m. newscast and potentially moving its late update from its current 9 p.m. slot, where it's regularly beaten by Channel 31, to the unlikely time of 7 p.m. – a tack recently taken by KPLR-TV, a CW station in St. Louis. The CW agreed to move the start of its programming from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. to accommodate this approach.

In contrast, Leonard is keeping Channel 2's morning block, which was reassuring news for anchor Tom Green. "I thought we'd been doing well enough in the ratings that they'd want to keep us," he says. Even so, he concedes that everyone at Channel 2 has had difficulty seeing so many colleagues receiving pink slips, and he's hopeful that at least some of them will be hired permanently in the new year after they prove their value. "They've been working so hard no matter what card they were dealt," he says. Thanks to their dedication, he feels the transition has gone more smoothly than he'd anticipated.

That's music to Leonard's ears. "It's been great fun to watch folks from Channel 2 come over to see where their office is going to be, what the facility looks like," he says, a salesman's smile on his face. "I think this is going to be a great boost for everyone once the trepidation and the uncertainty have ended."

And once no one else needs to be fired...

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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

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