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News Corp Dumps Local Fox Affiliates

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The name of News Corporation, Aussie Rupert Murdoch's dominating mega-firm, implies that the enterprise is at least somewhat concerned with, well, news — but its interest apparently tilts more toward covering outside events rather than self-revelation. Most financial observers believe Murdoch sold a gaggle of regional television affiliates — including KDVR-TV/Channel 31 and FSN Rocky Mountain, both in Denver — to help pay for his $5.2 billion purchase of the Dow Jones Company, which owns the Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, Jack Horner, News Corp's nursery-rhyme-monikered director of communications, declines to entertain any questions on this subject, referring instead to a press release masterfully written to offer absolutely no useful information.

Whatever Murdoch's motivation, neither Channel 31 nor FSN Rocky Mountain appears to have been wounded by these separate transactions. (The former was one of eight Fox stations picked up by Oak Hill Capital Partners for $1.1 billion, while the latter became part of a new venture, Liberty Sports Group, following a complicated agreement involving News Corp, Colorado moneybags John Malone's Liberty Media Corporation, DirecTV and about $12 billion.) Indeed, Channel 31 approaches the May ratings period on a roll, with its prime-time lineup finishing in the number-one slot and its late newscast crushing the competition during February sweeps. Meanwhile, FSN Rocky Mountain is reaping the benefits of its association with the Colorado Rockies. In 2004, when the network inked a ten-year pact with the team valued at $200 million (it included a small ownership stake that stays with News Corp), even some fans of the then-woeful franchise were dumbfounded. Thanks to the crew's 2007 World Series appearance, however, the investment looks mighty wise these days.

Granted, Channel 31 isn't hitting on all cylinders. Despite the presence of longtime KOA morning personality Steve Kelley, Good Day Colorado, the outlet's morning info block, has made only a modest impact in a portion of the day ruled by Channel 9. Bill Schneider, Channel 31's general manager, notes that Good Day's audience share has inched a bit higher since last year, but in general, 9News "hasn't loosened their grip on the mornings one bit." Luckily, the forecast is brighter for the signal's 9 p.m. news digest. In February, the numbers generated by the Ron Zappolo/Libby Weaver-helmed program were higher than the combined digits earned by its two primary rivals, Channel 2 and Channel 20, a sister station of Channel 9 that employs 9News talent. Says Schneider: "One could make the case that we're far more dominant in our time period than Channel 9" — which still leads the 10 p.m. news race, but not by the percentage Channel 31 enjoys. No wonder the station inked Zappolo to a contract extension. "We'd like to have Ron here until he chooses to retire from broadcasting," Schneider says.


Rupert Murdoch

With Zappolo locked up for the long term, a move to launch evening newscasts in the 4-6 p.m. range would seem like a natural next step, even in a market as soft as this one. (In late March, Channel 4 sent layoff notices to several employees, including weekend anchor Arturo Santiago — moves that echoed cuts at CBS stations across the country.) Schneider neither confirms nor denies such a strategy, but his open-ended comments hardly squelch speculation. "We certainly want to see this television station grow its local-news presence, and we discuss it on a near-daily basis," he says.

Over at FSN Rocky Mountain, expansion is the watchword, too. Mark Shuken, president and CEO of Liberty Sports Group, boasts about the financial health enjoyed by all three channels he'll oversee: the local branch plus FSN Pittsburgh and FSN Northwest, headquartered in Seattle, where Shuken will be based. "I've seen all the metrics for regional sports networks in the country, and these regions weren't underperforming," he emphasizes. "Liberty bought something that was worth what we were told they were worth. It wasn't that these were laggards." Moreover, he's open to the idea of adding more channels to the group. "We think we have a real opportunity to enhance and broaden the portfolio," he says. "We'll look at other regions of the country, partnerships, mergers and acquisitions."

As for changes at the area office, FSN Rocky Mountain senior vice president Tim Griggs avoids specifics. "We haven't really sat down and set out a strategic plan yet," he allows, "but I think there's going to be some interesting opportunities down the road." Still, he's clearly thrilled by the increased value of the channel's Rockies contract. The team's home opener against the St. Louis Cardinals drew the highest ratings for an April FSN game featuring the hometown boys in six years, and although the squad got off to a miserable start — one that's since improved — overall ratings for the first half-dozen contests were up 15 percent over last year.

Take that, Rupert.

A classical dilemma: As Colorado Public Radio's news arm prepares to make a move to the FM band, other parts of the operation are consolidating. Classical Public Radio Network (CPRN), a joint project of CPR and Los Angeles's KUSC, will shut down early this summer, a decade after its founding.

CPRN launched in 1998 with assistance from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which ponied up a grant that Current, a publication specializing in public broadcasting, estimates at $850,000. But with two other classical networks available (Classical 24 and the Beethoven Satellite Network), the demand for a third fell far short of overwhelming. At the end, says Erica Stull, CPR's vice president of community outreach, only about twenty stations took the feed, including KUSC and its Denver partner station, KVOD.

No layoffs are anticipated, at least not immediately; Stull notes that CPRN personnel will fall under the KVOD umbrella. She adds that the project leaves a positive legacy. "The idea was not really to create some kind of national juggernaut, but to make a better classical public-radio service, and we've done that," she emphasized. "And we've learned a lot along the way."

Such as? "Local works better," she says.

This comment is sure to get a rise out of CPR critics, who complain that the statewide service airs far too little programming aimed at specific communities, choosing instead to utilize a one-size-fits-all-approach that fails to recognize the distinctions between, for instance, Denver and Grand Junction. But either Stull sees Colorado as a single entity from one state line to the other, or she believes that CPR is doing a better job of tailoring shows for specific regions than detractors do. "The sense of community on a public-radio station, whether it's news or music, is very important to us," she says.

That's good to know.

Pressed: Tough times in the newspaper business don't only affect the largest publications. They're also causing difficulties at the most modest, as Matthew Faas knows all too well.

Faas, who once worked as an account executive with the Denver Newspaper Agency, came up with the idea of helping students at schools create their own biannual newspapers and then sell them as fundraisers to family members and so on. After forming a business called One Word One Love, he lined up College Invest as a sponsor and pitched his concept to principals and school boards. Pioneer Charter School and Harrington Elementary both signed up in 2007, and the efforts looked good and were well received. According to Faas, Harrington brought in $6,000 from last year's issues. "We raise much-needed funds through something that has everything to do with education," he points out. "We only publish twice a year, so it's not a stress for time on the schools or stress for funds on the local businesses." Moreover, "the schools don't pay a dime to participate."

Sounds good — but Faas has been unable to broker larger-scale deals with institutions such as the Denver Public Schools Foundation, and of late, he's struggled to find advertisers for sequels to his Pioneer and Harrington editions. No wonder, since the Denver dailies are having precisely the same problem.

The former minor-league baseball pitcher retains a can-do attitude he associates with the kids who've contributed to his newspapers, but he acknowledges that keeping the project going in this economy is a long shot.

So, increasingly, is the journalism game in general.

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