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!

Back in Miami Deco Drive's producers resorted to time-honored WSVN strategy: They changed things! The program began airing live, infusing some much-needed zest. In addition, although the latter half of Deco Drive remained the domain of entertainment and lifestyle stories, its first ten minutes were turned over to news -- up to a dozen or stories the anchors would tear through at alarming speed. Few, if any, of the reports were original to the show; most were swiped from other WSVN news crews or satellite feeds.

Meanwhile, the staff was undergoing violent upheaval. Well before Deco Drive's retreat from Boston, the studio had become a revolving door for anchors: Aguirre kept her post, but Mitchell bailed out in April and was replaced by Tim Sherno, WSVN's entertainment reporter, who scooted aside after several months to make room for Lynn Martinez, who was also anchoring the 5:30 and 6:30 newscasts.

"It was changing shape so many times," recalls former fashion correspondent Rod Hagwood. "It seemed like for one month it was stuff off satellite feeds and then it would be live stuff. When a program changes directions so frequently, it doesn't take a genius to see there's a problem."

Unless your unwavering world view dictates that change is good. According to Robert Leider, WSVN's executive vice president and general manager, losing Boston was really a boon: By comparison to Miami, the New England city was, well, full of prisses. "Boston is a more provincial market and South Florida is a cutting-edge, multicultural market," Leider reasons. "We were limited here because we had to watch the show's attitude in Boston."

Jacobs too puts a positive spin on the New England failure. "I saw it as a wonderful opportunity for us in South Florida," she proclaims. "We get a show that can really cater to our market! Instead of competing with two very high-profile entertainment shows -- Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood -- why not do the alternative, which is a South Florida show?" And substituting regurgitated news for unique entertainment and lifestyle reporting was by no means an admission of failure, Jacobs insists: "You know, we are the news station. That's what Channel 7's known for. That's what people turn us on for. So we really wanted to interject some news into Deco."

The changes also meant scaling back personnel -- drastically. Between the end of 1996 and early last month, Jacobs cut sixteen people from the Deco Drive team, reducing the staff from 28 to 12. (No one was fired, Jacobs says, though two contracts weren't renewed. Everyone else was either transferred to another job at the station or they quit.)

The most significant departure came in January, when executive producer Neil Freundlich, who was well-liked and highly regarded by his colleagues, left the station. Several insiders say Freundlich resolved to depart after being told he would be replaced as executive producer. (Freundlich, now a producer at America's Most Wanted in Washington, D.C., will say only that he left the station because he got a better job offer.) His exit was a blow to staff morale and prompted suspicions that Deco Drive was on its way out too. Says one WSVN employee who worked closely with Freundlich: "Neil was forced out and everybody thought it was over."

But the show went on, and so did the turmoil. Sunbeam brought in a new executive producer, David Hatcher, formerly the senior producer for Real Life. Michael Goldfine, Deco Drive's sole reporter, vanished from the air, as did Hagwood and another correspondent, former Sun-Sentinel music critic Deborah Wilker, who had been covering the music industry. According to Jacobs, Goldfine's contract was not renewed. Wilker, who is now a news correspondent with the Fox network, says she became "frustrated" with the direction of the show and quit contributing to it. Hagwood says he stopped returning producers' phone calls because he was tired of doing "silly little reports."

Then came the wall-rattler: In late February veteran Channel 7 anchor and Deco Drive pioneer Jessica Aguirre dropped off the screen, never to return.

Says Jacobs: "Jessica left because she wanted to pursue other stuff." Insiders, however, say that while Aguirre was unhappy and was considering job offers at other stations around the country, her contract contained a clause that permitted either side to cancel, and WSVN fired her. Her husband, sportscaster Jay Huyler, is said to have left under similar circumstances. The scuttlebutt: On the morning of February 26 the couple received a phone call from WSVN execs, who told them not to bother showing up for work that day, or ever again. (Aguirre refuses to comment about the matter, and Huyler could not be reached.)

Ex-correspondent Wilker contends that WSVN has blundered a chance to create some unique local programming -- a sentiment echoed by several of her embittered former colleagues. "The market is clearly big enough for an enterprising and truly informative entertainment and lifestyle show," she says. "Channel 7 has a great opportunity: They have a huge viewership, name recognition, and they're not beholden to a major corporation. But with all this going for it, Deco never became the show it should have been."

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