By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
1:30 p.m.: Call Brian Jones, VP/GM at Channel 11, to confirm he's hiring John Miller and talking to Kristine Kahanek. He confirms both. Ask him if these steps will help him get the station out of the ratings cellar. "We're all very competitive people, so it [poor ratings] is frustrating," he says. "But we know that changing the viewing habits of the marketplace is a long-term job. We're building a foundation. It takes time. Channel 8 is a fine organization that has entrenched itself as the market leader, in terms not only of ratings but of quality, too. We're taking steps to compete with them on both levels."
2:13 p.m.: Note to self: Last few sentences of Jones interview undermine my "Channel 8 is retarded" thesis. Best to, ah, forget to put them in column. Instead mention Channel 11's quality hires and Channel 5's ratings win as proof the Belo managers are outta touch. Let's write this thing.
3:09 p.m. Dale Hansen calls back. OK, that's not too much of a surprise. Dale is the alpha dog at Channel 8, and he can discuss the station without getting clearance from higher-ups because...because he's big bad Dale Hansen. Right away, he confirms that the exodus of good talent continues, as Steve Atkinson, Mr. Spock to Hansen's Captain Kirk, is leaving to take a lead sports anchor gig in Denver.
That's when Hansen starts shooting holes in my theories.
"First, I'm very concerned if folks in the newsroom think my contract breaks the bank. Sure, it's more money than I ever thought I'd make in my life, but it was very fair. In fact, there are very few people in that newsroom who would sign up for the kind of deal I did. I didn't get any raise of any kind for the first year of it, and nothing changed in my present deal, which goes on for another year and a half. I took a freeze for an additional year, see, and that was unnecessary. My attorney was mad as hell at me, because he said we could have done better."
He goes on about the ratings war Channel 8 is in with Channel 5 and, unfortunately, makes sense as he puts that in perspective. He agrees with me that much of Channel 5's success comes from the familiarity of Mike Snyder and Jane McGarry--from the station valuing its star anchors and letting people get comfortable with them. He agrees that Channel 8 still has too much of a mixed group of lead anchors before you get to the beloved Troy Dungan and Dale himself. "I believe it comes down to people," he says. "People tune in to watch people they like...But I'd like to ask you, if you're handed a 14 share or better [as Channel 5 is with NBC's 9 p.m. lead-in programming most nights] and turn it into a 10 [as Channel 5's newscast does], and someone else is handed a 6 or 7 and turns it into a 10 [as Channel 8 does], whose doing a better job attracting viewers?"
Ignore his question. Too much math. Too much knowledge, confusing me.
4:12 p.m.: Phone rings. Oh, great. It's Kathy Clements-Hill, the person who I want to assail in the column. Worse, she is respectful, forthright, cogent, even funny. She refuses to be baited into the Kristine Kahanek discussion, other than to say they lost the arbitration case, oh, well, time to wish her the best and move on. Of my complaints about rotating anchors, she says they plan to make John McCaa, Gloria Campos, Troy and Dale the main foursome for the coming years--which is, let's admit it, a strong starting lineup. Damn. Damn damn damn.
True, she gives me some canned cant like, "I don't look at it as a day-to-day battle with Channel 5. We just work every day to get better, to make a great newscast even better." Whu-haht-ever.
But Clements-Hill makes lots of sense when she says that the Channel 8 naysayers overlook the station's continued ratings success in the afternoon time slots (she ignores the morning ratings, with good reason...they ain't doin' so hot) and the still-strong stable of reporters the station has in its newsroom. (Hard to argue that Brett Shipp and Valeri Williams aren't the two best TV reporters in town.) "I still believe our product is strong enough to overcome NBC's lineup or some talented people leaving the station," she says. I tell her thanks and jokingly ask her to mention to her corporate twin, Bob Mong, the editor at the Belo-owned Dallas Morning News, that he wouldn't suffer so many slings and arrows if he would call back once in a while.
5:18 p.m.: Staring at blank page. Way past deadline. Damn that woman. This was going to be such a good column. So hateful. So assured. Now, there's just gray. Calvin was right.
5:19 p.m.: Phone rings. It's Bob Mong. Good grief.