Birth of a Station

Celebrated by a nationwide cavalcade of hype, Barry Diller's revolutionary new WAMI-TV hits the air. The verdict? Click.

That message, it turned out, was most touchingly articulated by Leshem. "We're not going to be everything to everyone," he told me. "We say that we're aspirational, which means that we're looking for a viewer who wants to make himself a better person. It doesn't matter if he's a ditch digger or a heart surgeon, as long as he wants to make himself more interesting."

As he made this pronouncement, Leshem was sitting on the marble steps that are the centerpiece of the studio. From this perch he could gawk at the in-line skaters rolling down Lincoln Road, at the reporters scurrying about the WAMI newsroom, or at the construction workers still laboring over the cavernous studio, who at the moment were eating lunch at his feet. "That said," Leshem went on, "I don't want to posture that I am making the world a better place or am working for altruistic reasons. We're still trying to get ratings."

It's a good thing he added the caveat, because aspirational is not the first word that leaps to mind when considering the WAMI show entitled 10+ (the working title was Miami Hotties), which airs on Saturdays from 11:00 to 11:30 p.m. To quote from the station's press kit: "Savor Miami's 'Hotties du Jour' in our postmodern, eye-candy feast. An interactive beauty contest where the audience votes on the hottest hottie and the hunkiest hunk. With tongue firmly in cheek, our cohosts track down the ultimate Hotties: male, female, gay, straight in their natural habitats with lots of flesh and humor. Basically a lighthearted beauty contest that hits the streets of South Florida."

Nor do the reruns of The Six Million Dollar Man, airing before 10+, appear to be especially aspirational.

But Leshem himself certainly is aspirational. At age 35, with precious little experience in the field, he's managed to land a gig overseeing the creative side of a television station start-up. He's an actor by trade, performing off-Broadway after studying theater at Sarah Lawrence College. In Los Angeles he directed the video for "Baby I Love Your Way" by Big Mountain. Eventually he stumbled onto the Internet and his current perch on the so-called cutting edge. His Cobalt Moon, an "interactive entertainment company," linked the massive software outfit Microsoft with Chicago's Second City comedy troupe. To read stories about his previous projects is to encounter adjectives such as "hip" and "cool." Leshem wears silver designer eyeglasses and a shaved head.

I asked Leshem to be a bit more specific about "aspirational." For example, who is his target audience? "You are!" he shot back, pointing his finger at my chest. "We're looking for someone just like you." Let's see, I'm a young man sucking in the last breaths of my twenties. Coca-Cola is my preferred soft drink. Does it matter that I'm married?

But Leshem isn't a numbers guy. Major editorial decisions at WAMI are often made on gut calls, he assured me, not market research. And there is little attention paid (at least at this time) to profit or ratings share. "I have a clear mandate," he asserted. "I am here to create new and interesting programming."

Some of WAMI's programming is interesting, and most of it is new in the sense that it hasn't been on the air before. But it's questionable how new it is creatively. The 7:30 p.m. talkfest Out Loud is a straight take on ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. WAMI's press kit says as much. The dance show Barcode is referred to as "an American Bandstand for the new millennium." City Desk is "like COPS only with reporters."

For some reason Leshem bristled at the charge that his shows are derivative. "The Lips -- that's extraordinarily original!" he protested, referring to the pair of glossy red lips that reads news headlines every evening at 11:00. "The local Traffic Jams [a video traffic map accompanied by soft-rock pablum airing for three straight hours every weekday morning] could have originated anywhere, but it came out of here. We have the traffic patterns, we have a good traffic service in the county. And we have the initiative to pair that traffic with good tunes. That's it. And that's original.

"Look," Leshem explained, "the start of a station is like a birth. "Do you have kids? You should think about it. A birth is painful, it's messy, and it's also, in the end, extraordinary and brilliant."

For someone about to give birth, Veronica Puleo appeared remarkably trim. Technicians had yet to dress her in a hospital gown, nor had they duct-taped a pillow to her abdomen. The 25-year-old actress from New Jersey is WAMI's evening host. But on this day in late May, she was starring in a promotional skit that involved having her simulate delivering from her loins a large cardboard station logo, which is the word "Miami" enclosed in a cartoon dialogue balloon.

The shoot was taking place in the maternity ward at Miami Beach's Mount Sinai Medical Center, which for some unknown reason I had been asked not to identify. A man hired as the station's weatherman (only to be dismissed before WAMI hit the air) had been recruited as the doctor. Rafael Oller, an assistant in the promotions department, might as well have been the midwife; as director of the spot, he was orchestrating all the shots on the birth.

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