Thursday, July 17, 2008
Into Thin Air
In Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's 1976 film Network -- still the most brilliantly dead-on indictment of the entire business of TV ever created, for any medium -- disturbed and ultimately doomed news anchor Howard Beale says, "Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamned amusement park."
Nowhere is this statement, particularly the latter half of it, more appallingly true than in South Florida.
For two decades, the entire market has been a petri dish in which the most virulent trends in television were first grown and experimented with before being released into the nationwide media bloodstream to infect every TV outlet from Denver to Des Moines. "If it bleeds, it leads?" You can thank WSVN for that. The rise of the "duopoly" -- basically where one company owns two local stations, often running them out of the same building? South Florida was at the forefront of that movement. High-gloss, graphically-enhanced, hallucinatory news read by, almost literally, Barbie dolls? You're welcome. In the same way that the Miami area has always operated as a sort of modern-day Casablanca for those with only the most gossamer of moral fiber -- a separate nation-state where the normal rules don't really apply and the definition of a criminal enterprise depends on your perspective -- it's likewise been a place where questionable tactics and techniques in modern media can travel under the radar until their success in the market becomes all the justification anyone needs to adopt them on a large scale.
Case in point, the event that started it all: On January 1st, 1989, after a bitter and confusing dogfight between rival companies for control of various shares of the South Florida television pie, three stations were forced to switch network affiliations. WCIX, which had been, up to that point, an independent airing reruns of Gilligan's Island, was suddenly blessed with CBS programming; NBC began airing on the former CBS station, WTVJ; and the erstwhile NBC station -- WSVN -- became an affiliate of the fledgling Fox network. Confused? Imagine being a South Florida viewer, waking up one morning to find yourself left to sort out this mess. The game of musical channels didn't end there, though. In 1995, thanks to a larger deal between then-owner of CBS Westinghouse and NBC -- the kind of trade agreement often found in professional sports, which leaves bit players taking on the role of pawns at the mercy of greedy owners -- WTVJ and WCIX swapped transmission signals. Once again, viewers awoke one morning to find CBS and NBC programming on opposite channels for reasons which, to them, must've seemed inexplicable -- and in fact were, insofar as they had nothing at all to do with South Florida and were basically just the offshoot of a contract that involved stations in Philadelphia and Boston. Like a new divorcée on a quest for personal reinvention, and because it had moved from channel 6 to 4 on the dial, WCIX -- the ex-CBS affiliate -- changed its call letters, unimaginatively, to WFOR.
Twice in 20 years, the landscape of South Florida television changed drastically, with lasting and far-reaching repercussions.
And now it could be about to happen again.
On Tuesday it was reported that media giant Post-Newsweek -- which owns WPLG 10, the ABC mainstay in South Florida -- will soon announce the purchase of WTVJ. NBC Universal put WTVJ up for sale back in March as part of a sell-off of the underperforming entities within its Television Stations Division, but the bombshell that WTVJ's network TV competition will be buying it is nothing short of jaw-dropping. In case you're wondering, it is actually legal for one company to own two stations in the same city -- it's done all the time in fact -- but typically the pairing involves a network TV affiliate and an independent, to avoid a direct conflict of interest, or two major stations in small areas where the competition isn't as great a consideration. This will mark the first time that this kind of deal has been attempted in a top 20 market -- the first time one company has sought to own two "big four" network affiliates in an area this size. It's no exaggeration to say that nothing will ever be the same.
According to FCC regulations, a deal like this can only be approved if one of the two stations in question isn't in the top four in terms of local audience share; right now WPLG is number one in the market, while WTVJ is a distant sixth. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest (the very definition of a conflict of interest being the act of competing with yourself and, in effect, needing to keep one side of the equation from ever truly succeeding to survive) the big question in all of this involves WTVJ's news department, as in what will happen to it? Nonthreatening buzzwords like "consolidation" are already being tossed around by some, no doubt meant to both reassure the nervous employees of the oldest and most honored television news organization in South Florida -- the people who understand that this buy-out could render them expendable -- as well as convince the community at large that a deal like this is not only a financial necessity but can, in fact, be a win-win for all involved. Unfortunately, such platitudes shouldn't get anyone's hopes up. This is a business deal in every possible connotation, and with the harsh reality of that firmly in mind, the only logical and cost-effective move WPLG's management has is to completely dismantle WTVJ's newsroom and sell syndicated programming to advertisers in the space where the station's newscasts once ran.
This makes the most sense. It's what's most likely to happen. And it's fucking criminal.
As much as I'd like to be able to claim otherwise, it's almost impossible for me to discuss this subject in impartial, purely academic terms. I just can't do it. As it turns out, I have an intimate working knowledge of both WTVJ and WPLG; at different points in my career, I worked at each station -- as a producer at the former and a manager at the latter. I have friends still employed in both newsrooms and fond memories of time spent working alongside them. Both WTVJ and WPLG are staffed, in large part, with talented, hard-working people -- which makes the act of watching one station being brought to submission by the other damn near heartbreaking. In particular, the journalists at WTVJ who've toiled for the past several years under the strain of corporate neglect, consistent upper-level mismanagement and the low ratings that have resulted from both -- shattering the station's reputation and the pride of purpose they once held so dear -- deserve not simply praise for their efforts; they deserve better. They always did.
Despite having worked in both places, it's no secret that a little bit of my heart remains with WTVJ; my time there represents, quite simply, one of the highlights of my career -- the people there, family. To see what's become of an operation that was once so respected and revered by its staff and its competition would leave any former employee -- from Katie Couric to the late David Bloom to anyone who remembers the station's heyday -- both dumbfounded and infuriated. When I left WTVJ to move to Los Angeles in 2000, the entire organization was preparing to relocate to a new state-of-the-art facility that would put it leaps and bounds ahead of its competitors in terms of technology. The future didn't just look bright for the station, which was consistently placing at or near the top of the ratings; it seemed as if the very best days of its storied tenure were ahead of it. What wound up happening, however, could literally be written up as a how-to manual for those curious about the most effective means of running a television operation right into the ground: Arrogance trumped execution; new managers began making one inexplicable decision after another; true journalists were trampled underfoot or let go altogether while pretty faces were pampered; opportunities were squandered; morale plummeted in conjunction with falling ratings and the feeling that the station's glory days were fading into the collective rearview mirror; as it so often does, failure bred failure. In the words of a fellow ex-employee of WTVJ -- a former co-worker of mine -- the station died years ago, it just took this long for someone to finally put it in the ground.
And that someone, from what it looks like, will be a man named Dave Boylan.
On the front line anyway, Boylan is in charge of facilitating Post-Newsweek's takeover of WTVJ. His official title is Vice President and General Manager of WPLG, which to all but the most inherently distrusting betrays nothing of the pitch black reality of who Dave Boylan is, what his responsibilities are, and the legacy of scorched earth that he's left in his wake as he's honed his reputation for being one of the most admirably skilled corporate hatchet men in the business of local TV. Boylan represents, quite frankly, everything that's wrong with, and utterly deplorable about, today's television industry -- all wrapped up in one slick, discomforting package. If you could figure out a way to slap a threateningly charming Cheshire grin on a locust -- or any creature which travels from place to place, consuming every resource the locals hold dear, then moving on -- you'd have Boylan. What's worse, he and those who think like him stand as the unavoidable future of market-level media.
Dave Boylan began his television career not in news or even promotions but in sales. From day one, he's looked at TV strictly as a business, one in which the news department can occasionally be an advantage and occasionally be an impediment to making money for the people at the top of the food chain. Before arriving at WPLG in South Florida, Boylan spent three years managing the KTTV/KCOP duopoly in Los Angeles, where he helped set the tone for news departments that boasted the Jillian Barberie/Dorothy Lucey/Lisa Joyner trifecta of style-over-substance and concocted horseshit top stories tied into WWF lead-ins, respectively. Boylan has actually bragged about the fact that he hired KCOP's Lauren Sanchez, a woman who could very well represent the highest reverse correlation between beauty and qualifications in all of television news. But it was at WTVT, the Fox-owned station in Tampa, where Boylan first mastered the art of corporate capitulation at the expense of journalistic responsibility. During his tenure there in the late 90s, he became embroiled in a minor scandal involving two of his investigative reporters and one very large, very angry agricultural company.
Steve Wilson and Jane Akre -- WTVT's husband-and-wife investigative team -- had discovered that, despite promises to the contrary, grocery stores across Florida were selling milk produced through the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH. The hormone, developed by the Monsanto Company, was intended to boost milk production in cows. Unfortunately, some scientists claim that rBGH also boosts the levels of a certain type of hormone within that milk -- one that causes cancer in people who drink it. To make a long story short, Wilson and Akre's story never aired because Monsanto found out about it ahead of time and put pressure on Hutt-like Fox News chief Roger Ailes who told Dave Boylan to handle it. After putting them through the ringer -- forcing rewrite after rewrite in an effort to supposedly try to give the story more "balance" -- Boylan killed the thing outright and fired Wilson and Akre for reportedly refusing to include what, by almost all accounts, was false information in the story, but not before telling them (according to the lawsuit they immediately filed against the station), "We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We will decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is." Boylan was forced to testify to his actions when the suit went to court; Wilson and Akre wound up winning under Florida's whistleblower law, only to have the judgment overturned on appeal by Fox. Boylan, of course, lived to vitiate another day.
Now, he's likely going to assume control of WTVJ and, as any conquering Visigoth might, sack the hell out of it.
That said, however -- all of that said -- it is indeed within his right. Boylan has been at the helm of WPLG as it's gone from battling for the top spot within the market to absolutely dominating it. The station is number one across the board, 9am to midnight, Monday through Sunday. And unfortunately, no one can argue with success like that.
That friend of mine, my former co-worker at WTVJ, probably put it most succinctly: "He won. He gets to do what he wants."
Which doesn't make me feel any better about the prospect of a news department with that much history in South Florida winding up as nothing more than a head on the wall of Dave Boylan's office. And, to some extent, that's exactly what it will be. The plan is for WTVJ, as an entity, to move out of its current home and into WPLG's new facility, currently under construction southwest of Ft. Lauderdale. Adding the worst kind of insult to injury: WSVN, the local Fox affiliate, is reportedly already discussing plans to move into and take over WTVJ's building. That sprawling, state-of-the-art complex that once represented the shining future of WTVJ may soon be occupied by one of the station's fiercest competitors.
It would be easy to assert that this entire scenario shouldn't be allowed to happen -- that a vigilant FCC will almost certainly stand in the way. Such beliefs are little more than impotent pipe dreams in this age of media deregulation, however. While one television station moving to swallow its competition whole -- thereby further homogenizing the flow of information to the community each is supposed to serve -- may seem like the kind of thing that would never be approved by the government, it's simply naive to assume that Post-Newsweek would undertake such brazen action if it weren't reasonably assured of success. Television is, once again, a business after all -- and the people running it know their business.
But it's important to keep in mind that legality and corruption aren't necessarily mutually exclusive notions, and although the bottom line may win in this case -- and in the dozens of cases just like it that will no doubt follow -- the audience will suffer. The truth will suffer.
Like Howard Beale said though, television isn't the truth -- it's an amusement park.
And after 20 years, I'm betting a lot of people in South Florida want the roller-coaster ride to finally end.