Shameless in Seattle

A breach-of-contract lawsuit dogs A.H. Belo's bid to join the media big leagues

It isn't as if Belo didn't give KIRO a valiant effort. Immediately after stockholders approved the purchase from Bonneville on February 1, 1995, Belo newscast guru Marty Haag--the man widely credited for spit-shining WFAA and other Belo news operations--put in six months' hard time in Seattle to polish up the product.

The transition did not go smoothly, says Chuck Taylor, who covers electronic media for The Seattle Times.

"Haag wanted everyone to know he was making his imprint in rebuilding that news operation," Taylor says. "Mercurial would be a good description of his personality. Most of the staff went along with him. Some had a harder time."

When Taylor discusses Belo's impact on Seattle media, it is with clear respect.

"KIRO lost its CBS affiliation in March 1995, and suddenly Belo was faced with a UPN affiliation in mid-season," Taylor says. "They had to fill a lot of gaps after they lost CBS and grab what syndicated material they could."

But Haag also pursued a tested Belo tactic--jamming the station with massive blocks of news broadcasts. Eight hours of local, live news each day, in fact, which is virtually unheard of for an independent station, Taylor says. "I don't think any other station comes close to the amount of news coverage Belo does out here."

The broadcasts, not surprisingly, reflect the sober, gray-bearded, kindly uncle image that Belo is known for. "In promotions, they call themselves the 'Spirit of the Northwest,'" Taylor says with a snicker. (Sound familiar, Dallas?) And indeed, when Decherd announced the KIRO buy at a September 1994 press conference in Seattle, he noted in his best, "family-first" voice: "You will not find blood, guts, gore, and ambulances on Belo television."

The biggest question engulfing KIRO now is who will buy the station from Belo--a move that, with the Providence Journal deal awaiting only formal shareholders' approval, will happen any day now, Taylor says. "There's a real air of tension at the station," he says. "The talk is about Viacom or Fox taking over, but no one knows for sure. People are nervous about what's in store."

But the future state of KIRO is surely the furthest thing from Belo bosses' minds these days. They are standing before the biggest acquisition in their history, eyes popping, rather like a bunch of kids viewing the vast loot pile under the tree on Christmas morning. When Belo shareholders give the company the nod on February 19 (Providence Journal investors will have their own vote that same afternoon), they will own a stake in one of the largest daily newspapers on the East Coast and 13 new television stations, all in respectable U.S. markets.

Besides KING in Seattle, the list includes the top-rated stations in Portland, Honolulu, and Boise. The remaining properties--in Spokane, Charlotte, Albuquerque-Santa Fe, and Tucson--rank second, third, and fourth in their markets. But Belo, surely, is already working to remedy that.

It's a veritable Belo blitz of the nation's TV market. The broadcast possibilities--and the potential profits--are enormous. A.H. Belo Corporation is now in the big time.

But still, there is Dunbar, who will be watching from the wings during the uncorking of the Dom Perignon. There is still that pesky matter of the $800,000 he's fighting to recover--a symbol, he thinks, of the nasty, take-no-prisoners way that Belo does business.

"Chuck Dunbar is a simple, stand-up guy who brought a whole business deal around to Belo," says Tillotson. "And when it served them, they just cut my client out altogether. He did what he said he would. All he wants is what's owed him.

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