In March 2017, after an absence of more than eight years, former Channel 2 anchor Ernie Bjorkman returned to the station, taking over as co-host of the morning program Daybreak from Tom Green, who announced that he was stepping away from the gig prior to landing back at 9News.
But in recent weeks, Bjorkman learned that he was out when the station declined to pick up a third-year option on his contract. And he's not alone. He says nine other veterans of the CW affiliate have been nudged out the door, not counting evening anchor Mike Landess, who took his leave last October. And because Bjorkman's Daybreak gig is going to Chris Parente, who's already a part of the show's staff, the station won't have to hire anyone new.
Why are these moves being made? "I can't say definitely," Bjorkman acknowledges. "But my friends all think they're clearing salary to make the bottom line look better for the sale."
Bjorkman is referencing a December transaction in which the Nexstar Media Group purchased 42 stations from Tribune Media, including the latter's two Denver TV properties — Channel 2 and its sister outlet, Fox31. But all signs point to a Channel 2-Fox31 split that's expected to have major repercussions in the Mile High City's television market.
The drama involving the stations' ownership first came to the fore in May 2017, when Sinclair Broadcast Group announced the purchase of the aforementioned stations from Tribune for a reported $3.9 billion. This move immediately led to speculation that the conglomerate, whose viewership in its biggest markets was estimated at 2.2 million, wanted to create a national network of GOP-friendly stations that might challenge the dominance of cable powerhouse Fox News.
Even before the Tribune buy, Sinclair had been using its properties to spread a conservative message via commentaries by former executive Mark Hyman, known for attacks on so-called snowflakes and a defense of the Washington Redskins football team, whose executives refuse to replace a name that many people view as racist. Also part of the Sinclair team is Boris Epshteyn, a former adviser to President Donald Trump whose own invective flies with the right wing.
The Hyman-Epshteyn packages are designated as "must-run," meaning that affiliates have to include them in newscasts whether local managers want to or not. And although some stations, like KOMO in Seattle, tried to soften this edict's blow by airing some of the salvos during the wee hours, the prospect that this could change likely influenced Fox31 news director Holly Gauntt to jump to Denver7 mere months after Sinclair's deal was announced.
Gauntt was the person "who brought me back" to Channel 2, Bjorkman says, "and she left because of the uncertainty over the sale" — a move that resulted in his loss of a valuable advocate.
Meanwhile, the Sinclair purchase ran into trouble. Questions about whether the transaction would win federal approval inspired the company to negotiate with broadcasting companies that might be willing to pick up a few of the signals — and 21st Century Fox, the domain of Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch, quickly began maneuvering for Fox31. This development seemed likely to doom Channel 2's news operation, which is put together at Fox31 using shared equipment, resources and personnel in the complex where both are located.
In August, the Sinclair deal fell part amid a Tribune lawsuit and breach-of-contract accusations. That opened the door for Nexstar, whose 170-plus television stations make it the largest owner of such operations in the country. The price tag for the Tribune properties: around $4.1 million.
Whether Fox31 and Channel 2 both wind up beneath the Nexstar umbrella is another question. The FCC still has to okay the purchase, and that's hardly guaranteed. Indeed, the feds may balk at approving the transfer of all 42 licenses, which explains why Variety reported that "the new-model Fox is expected to seek to buy numerous Tribune-owned Fox affiliates."
While Fox31 didn't earn a specific mention in the Variety piece, it was one of seven stations in a $910 million agreement jointly announced by Sinclair and 21st Century Fox last May. And if Fox31 is sold separately, Nexstar would have to make some heavy investments to allow Channel 2 to stand on its own, including the likely purchase of a brand-new facility and studio space, as well as the hiring of additional personnel for a news operation — unless the company decides to go without one.
Channel 2 employees have been watching these developments with understandable curiosity — Bjorkman included.
"As soon as I got back here, there were rumors that Sinclair was going to buy us," he notes. "Then Nexstar bought the Tribune stations, but there's talk that the Fox o-and-o's [the term means 'owned and operated'] are going to buy 31 — and all of it could happen this summer, supposedly."
Against this backdrop, Bjorkman reveals that the station "bought out nine people before me, all longtime employees. So the station lost nine employees, and Landess went, too — and I was next."
Industry insiders have assured Bjorkman that his ouster has nothing to do with his performance and is really about financial matters — and he gets it. "Nobody knows what Nexstar has planned," he concedes. "Will they keep the stations in the same building? Will the morning news compete with Fox31? There's a lot of uncertainty."
As a result, "people on the Channel 2 side are a little nervous, because they don't know what's going to happen next."
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For his part, Bjorkman bears no ill will toward anyone at the station. "As I told my boss, Joan Barrett, and my news director [Brian Gregory], I'm so thankful for the past few years. I've really enjoyed getting reacquainted with old friends, meeting new friends and having new viewers."
Moreover, he's agreed to do substitute stints on Daybreak if folks are ill or on vacation. "My wife and I just bought a condo in Grand Lake, and without any other options, we're going to live there full-time," he says. "But we'll be coming down to Denver a lot, because we've got family here. It's only 100 miles away, so filling in with Channel 2 and Fox31 is a way to keep my toes in the water."
He's not ready to retire. "Who knows what's going to happen down the road? I love what I do, so I'm keeping my options open. Hopefully, I'm going to do some freelance work, and if a chance came along to go work for somebody else, I'd do it in a heartbeat."
The future for Channel 2 remains in flux, too, and Bjorkman is interested in how it all shakes out. In his words, "I'm going to sit on the sidelines and watch."