By Michael E. Miller
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Things get stale very quickly. And when something feels stale or something needs to be updated or something needs to be re-energized, we do it. We fix it!"
As she speaks, Alice Jacobs, 33-year-old vice president for news at WSVN-TV, leans forward in her office chair, and props her elbows on her desk. From this roost she can look to the right out a bay window into Channel 7's bright, bustling newsroom, to her left through another window to the Intracoastal Waterway, which slaps at the ramparts of the station's North Bay Village complex, or straight ahead to a wall of six television monitors, five of which show local stations, with the sixth tied in to WSVN's sister station in Boston. It is toward the television wall that her eyes, midconversation, frequently click.
"We change things!" she continues, her voice heavy on exclamation points, as if a cheerleader is trapped inside her body. "I'll just sit around and go, 'Ohhhh, I'm kinda bored with that,' and Boom! --" she practically leaps out of her seat -- "we change it!"
Nowhere has this dogma been put to the test more than at the Fox affiliate's sixteen-month-old infotainment show Deco Drive. The half-hour daily injection of quick-cut editing, flashy graphics, and aggressively vapid content debuted early last year amid hoopla and high expectations that it would challenge entertainment news mainstays such as Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight. Back then the buzz was that the program would be syndicated.
But Deco Drive soon faltered. Like an adolescent switching hair and clothing styles, the show has been casting about for an identity. Originally committed to lifestyle and celebrity reports, producers eventually began to throw spot news into the mix, while a succession of sparkling smiles rotated through the anchor seats. The budget was cut significantly.
The unceasing transmutations bred considerable discontent among the staff members, many of whom were transferred to other departments or left the station. "A lot of people at the station hate the show," comments one former Deco Drive staffer who now does other work at WSVN and who, like many others interviewed for this article, requested anonymity for fear of being fired. "At first they brought in the best people they could, and everybody working on the show really believed in it and wanted it to succeed. But there was always a cloud of doom, the looming possibility of cancellation. An opportunity to do something different was squandered by WSVN's attempt to do more for less. Now we're all just waiting to see what will happen."
The origins of Deco Drive can be found deep inside the massive heave of Penny Daniels's bouffant. Specifically, the plume of hair she sported during the late 1980s and early 1990s when she anchored WSVN's first tabloid-style magazine program, Inside Story. Propelled by Daniels's hyperbolic delivery, the show (later renamed Inside Report) demonstrated that WSVN's frenetic style didn't have to be limited to straight newscasts. It worked with just about anything!
Inside Report was so successful locally that the production company run by WSVN owner Ed Ansin took the show national, syndicating it in scores of markets around the U.S. Though Sunbeam Productions' first effort at national syndication didn't last very long -- it suffered miserable ratings outside South Florida and was eventually canceled entirely -- the brains behind Channel 7 knew they'd hit on a strategy for filling the 7:00-to-8:00 p.m. programming hole, a job networks leave to their affiliates. Most stations plug the gap between news time and prime time with syndicated programming. WPLG-TV (Channel 10), for example, offers a Wheel of Fortune/Jeopardy! double-header. Locally produced programming has become as rare as black-and-white TVs. WSVN was bucking the trend.
During the Gulf War the station launched a popular 7:30 p.m. newscast. But as ratings declined after the war, the station's executives did what they always do: They revamped the show. Their imaginations in overdrive, they dubbed the hybrid 7:30 and once again wheeled out the frenzied Daniels to wake Miamians from their postprandial languor with a swirl of news, entertainment, celebrity profiles, gossip, and glitz.
"What made it unique is not just, 'Oh, here's some news and celebrity gossip,'" clarifies station VP Alice Jacobs. The anchors, she explains, were permitted to throw in editorial comments and sassy barbs as they read the news. "We really gave it an attitude," Jacobs goes on. "We wanted to let people giggle at home and say, 'Hey, that's exactly what I was thinking!'"
The show scored decent ratings and was apparently cost-efficient: It operated with a skeleton crew of five. But after a run of five years, corporate noses again began to twitch. "It got kind of stale," Jacobs recalls. "You know, we needed to kind of reinvent it."
In addition, there had been several business changes at WSVN. For one, station owner Ansin had purchased Boston's NBC affiliate station, WHGH. The new acquisition created a joint-programming opportunity for Sunbeam.
Their ambitions ascendant, Ansin and his first lieutenant of flash, Sunbeam senior vice president Joel Cheatwood, the man responsible for creating WSVN's now-infamous brand of lurid, high-octane news coverage, decided to reconfigure 7:30. The duo wanted something bigger and brasher than 7:30, something that piggybacked on the sexiness of South Beach but that the whole world would want to watch.