By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"The more you know," Calvin began, "the harder it is to take decisive action. Once you become informed, you start seeing complexities and shades of gray. You realize that nothing is as clear and simple as it first appears. Ultimately, knowledge is paralyzing." He then tossed the book over his shoulder as he announced, "Being a man of action, I can't afford to take that risk."
The truth of his oration was never more clear to me than Monday, a day when my view of the current management philosophies at WFAA-TV Channel 8 was wildly reconfigured. Actually, my opinion fell apart, was reconstructed, collapsed again, then was reassembled with spit and baling wire into a useless hodgepodge of lukewarm feelings and unsure sentiments. All because people who usually don't return my phone calls did so.
Before I tell you about Monday, let's review what you, faithful reader, demand of me, stalwart media columnist. You turn to this page to read about the inner workings--the sausage-making, if you will--of various media institutions and the trolls who inhabit their soul-sucking corridors. You look for fuming wit and froth-mouthed outrage unencumbered by complexities and shades of gray. Gray is the shade of academicians, a color that makes for dull reading. Bright red, the color of anger and blood and self-righteous columnists, is a confident color, a joy to read and, I submit, much more fun to write.
All of which is why, even though I've often spanked Belo higher-ups for not returning my phone calls, for not giving me their side of the story--a story that inevitably makes management look like ogres feeding on the pain of their employees--I must admit now that their neglect made my job so much easier. Now, when they start getting clever and returning my calls, well...well, read these excerpts from my FranklinCovey Monarch-sized FolioPad two-page-per-day daily planner and note-taking system for Monday, June 3, and you'll see why I'm so confused and distraught. (Note that some of the times may be slightly altered to protect the tenuous structure of this column.)
7:05 a.m.: Make it to desk five minutes later than usual. Must spend less time at early-morning charity functions.
7:15 a.m.: Deep Source 9 calls. Says because John Miller, longtime and award-winning news director at Channel 8, was named news director at KTVT-TV Channel 11, it is "sweet revenge," since it was Miller who helped make Channel 8 the ratings king for two decades. Also says everyone is ticked because sports-king Dale Hansen got a big signing bonus and a new five-year contract for large coin when a buncha Channel 8ers are forgoing their contractual raises to help the company during lean times--especially since Channel 8 just lost (barely) the 10 p.m. newscast ratings war with Channel 5 during the all-important May "sweeps" month. Sweet column bashing blind management at Channel 8 to come.
8:25 a.m.: Call former Channel 8 weatherbabe Kristine Kahanek. As expected, she helps fuel column idea. Says she just won arbitration case against Channel 8. She confirms most of the story that I'd heard about what went down when she left the station in April 2001. KK had one small child but had lost a child during a subsequent pregnancy. She was pregnant again and her doctor told her that her early-morning schedule--getting up at 4 a.m. to prepare for the daybreak newscasts--was not conducive to a healthy pregnancy. So she asked if she could be moved to the noon slot. "I thought we could work it out," she says. "But for some reason, the negotiations just turned sour." First they said no, then they said OK but at a "huge" reduction in salary. "I became a nuisance to them," Kahanek says, "but I put my family first. Ironic, I know." Ironic because Channel 8 calls itself the "Family First" station. She says she left even though her contract wasn't up, and the station stopped paying her, effectively accepting her resignation.
Note to self: This is great. I'll eviscerate those jerks. This will be my lead anecdote. The column is writing itself.
Kahanek says she's free to work now, and she confirms that she's in talks with Channel 11, among other options. KK goes on to say that although she won her arbitration case against Belo, which tried to enforce a strict interpretation of her "non-compete" clause (meaning she couldn't work for anyone else in this market through 2003), I need to talk to her lawyer to get the details. More grist for the mill.
9:38 a.m.: Leave futile message to Channel 8 general manager Kathy Clements-Hill, who, everyone knows, will not call back, because Belo doesn't talk to the Dallas Observer. Also call Dale Hansen.
9:45 a.m.: Preparing to write column. Looking through Roget's College Thesaurus to find new words to replace the too-often used term "moron" (favorite: "halfwit").
11:05 a.m.: Call KK's lawyer, Steve Malouf. He details how, because Channel 8's contract said that it could terminate her "without cause," the station's argument that it needed to protect its interests in keeping her off the air at competitors wouldn't wash. In other words, he says that although it makes sense that a station wouldn't want to sink money into promoting someone only to see that person take her newfound fame and value to a competitor, the arbitrator says that the station forfeits that right when they say they can fire you for no reason. More complicated legal information follows. My eyes roll back. Summarize conversation this way: Malouf confirms Belo management's "general jerkitude."
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.