That's Infotainment!

In the wacky world of Channel 7's Deco Drive, failure is success, fluff is substance, and all those changes are good, good, good!

It would be called Deco Drive.
A staff of 28 was hired to produce the show and a healthy budget was carved out (though they won't say how much). An office was dedicated to the program and a set constructed.

"It was really very positive. We were very enthusiastic, working late hours," recalls Melanie Morningstar, a freelance producer who worked on Deco Drive for several weeks before the show made its debut. "We were all under the impression we were doing something different, something innovative, the best that Fox could do. Joel Cheatwood changed the face of television -- for better or worse -- and we always felt we were going to be part of that."

Fueling the excitement was talk that Sunbeam planned to syndicate Deco Drive nationally. Today Jacobs insists the station's management never had such conversations. "That was more talk among the underlings than the managers," she asserts. But her memory conflicts with that of several people who were working on the show at the time. "That's bullshit! Everybody knew that was the plan," exclaims a former Deco Drive staff member who was intimately involved with the show from its inception. "We had meetings about that!"

Deco Drive debuted at 7:00 p.m. on January 8, 1996, in both Miami and Boston, with Kelley Mitchell and Jessica Aguirre as co-anchors (the program was later moved to the 7:30 time slot.) The show declared its gaudy Miami mood from the opening montage, a succession of South Beach images flashing across the screen at lightning speed: in-line skaters, Ocean Drive neon, bikinis, ocean. This gave way to the bare-legged anchor tandem, perched on slender stools in front of a backdrop of an Ocean Drive-style cityscape done in pastel hues. The stories were pure fluff, profiles of actors, models, and musicians. The coming weeks brought more of the same, including a piece about celebrity leeches and one on the true identity of Mr. Jenkins, the character in the ubiquitous Tanqueray ad.

Crews were dispatched to Los Angeles to do a story about lesbian imagery in advertising, to the Midwest to report on a man living in a converted nuclear weapons silo, to North Florida to report on a group of kids who dress like vampires. Correspondents flew west to cover the Grammys and to New York to file fashion-show stories.

"They were interested in quick and light," says Rod Stafford Hagwood, the fashion editor for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel who was Deco Drive's fashion correspondent until late last year. "If you got some information in there, all the better! I realized it when I left something out of a story and they said, 'Oh, don't worry about it. You were great!'"

The style was glib and sassy, bordering on catty. This, says Jacobs, separated Deco Drive from the other entertainment shows already on the air, like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. "The one thing that we had is that we could inject that attitude that no one else has," she says.

In Miami Deco Drive was greeted with moderate interest. During its first month it scored a Nielsen rating of 5.8, or nine percent of all local televisions turned on at that time. (That was better than Star Trek but not as good as Hard Copy, and nowhere near as good as Wheel of Fortune or the Spanish-language Lazos de Amor.) But the initial burst of enthusiasm quickly evaporated; the market-share rating has hovered between seven and eight percent since the outset, and most recently dropped to six this past month. Among the eight major local stations, Deco Drive is now losing out to everything in its time slot except Channel 6's Extra and Channel 51's Edicion Especial.

Boston was worse. Much worse. "It sank like a big, sick pelican," says Monica Collins, TV critic for the Boston Herald. "In the beginning it was just horrible," she winces, "just your standard puffy Entertainment Tonight-y kind of drivel that we don't need any more of. But as it went on through the months, it began to develop this neat attitude. Jessica and Kelley really began to show a lot of attitude. It kind of developed a voice that was a little irreverent, that was self-consciously flashy." Collins's voice drops as if confiding a secret: "I have to begrudgingly admit that I had grown fond of it."

Collins was in the minority, however, and Sunbeam execs pulled the show from WHGH five months after its premiere.

Several people who were working on Deco Drive at the time say it could have prevailed in Boston, if Cheatwood and Ansin had devoted more resources to it. Instead management threw its weight behind Real Life, a lifestyle show for women produced in Boston and syndicated nationally. Sunbeam hired more than 100 people to produce Real Life and opened bureaus in several cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami. The program, which aired in 66 markets, flopped and was canceled in November. "There were some people who were happy Real Life failed," comments a former Deco Drive team member. "We felt like the stepchild."

One colleague no longer at the station has another theory: Deco Drive failed in Boston because it dipped below the city's lowest common intellectual denominator. "In an academic city like Boston," the former staffer chides, "I don't think you can put utter crap on the air and think it's going to fly."

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