Birth of a Station

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

The idea was that this promo would be the first thing on the air when the station started up at 6:00 a.m. on June 8. "Ted Turner filmed one of these when he launched CNN," noted WAMI vice president and creative director Chris Sloan, who was recruited to play an orderly. "In their promo they said they'd be on the air until the end of the world. So at the same time, he also recorded a spot for Armageddon. Seriously, it says something like: We promised we'd be on until the end of the world. That time is now. May God be with you."

How about at WAMI? Will a doomsday announcement be waiting in the vault? "No way," Sloan said with a laugh. "Ours will be on in more like a year and a half."

A cast of a dozen surgical-scrub-clad extras culled from the station's promotions department fanned around a bed in which Puleo rested in the stirrups. The doomed weatherman hovered around her crotch in preparation for the birth. On command the extras shouted instructions to push, push, push. At regular intervals, Puleo's face and arms were spritzed with baby oil to simulate sweat. Finally the giant cardboard logo appeared, splattered in raspberry-flavored Jell-O.

With all the separate takes and shifting camera angles and flubbed lines, the shoot ran more than three hours. It would take Oller, a filmmaker by trade, three days to edit the film into shape. The promo itself, when it finally aired, was one minute long.

The actual conception of the station was even more difficult. Leshem wasn't named editor in chief until December of last year, giving him precious little time to develop, produce, schedule, and market a full lineup of local programming, all of which was expected of him. The station initially planned to launch in early spring but pushed that date back until after the May sweeps. Leshem explained at the time that the delay was caused in part by the difficulty of creating quality local programming.

Though the debut took place more than two weeks ago, the station's schedule is still in flux. A program with former Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan is not yet ready to roll. The late-night variety show Lincoln Lounge waits in dry dock. Given these hassles, is Leshem worried about developing new programming? Heck no: "It will only get easier once our infrastructure is in place. We've hired extremely talented producers who may not have done much TV production in the past, but they're learning. And as they learn, they're better at production, at knowing what they're supposed to do, and at how to pitch new and better shows."

When Diller first announced his plans for WAMI, much attention was lavished on his ambitious plans for news programming. In an article in BusinessWeek, Diller promised three hours of news per day. Leshem later boasted of his station's opportunity to reinvent insipid, bland local television. "Will we cover a fire simply because it is happening when we're on the air?" he asked rhetorically. "No, we won't. There'll be no spot news at all if we can help it."

But for all this tough talk, WAMI in the end committed just a single half-hour of its 24-hour daily schedule to local news (though the show is rerun three times throughout the cycle). The final product, or at least its early incarnation, does manage to avoid replicating the standard format of a news show. But like almost everything else at WAMI, The Times, as the program is called, is derivative. Obvious influences are the Comedy Channel's Daily Show and (to keep things local) Channel 7's Deco Drive. The main news story of the day is used as fodder for snarky comments. For example, when a Miami City commissioner was sent to jail, they referred to him not as Humberto Hernandez but as "baby-faced Bert Hernandez."

As advertised, the first two weeks featured zero stories about car wrecks or fires. Instead there was coverage of a symposium on political corruption, where Miami Mayor Joe Carollo was asked if the forum was convened to combat corruption or to teach politicians how to do it better. (Carollo, as anyone who has covered him knows, is virtually incapable of expressing humor.) One reporter interviewed the last surviving Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz. Another profiled a sandcastle sculptor. Into this mix of (sometimes excellent) fluff can occasionally fall some serious journalism. In the station's third day on the air, for example, reporter John Mattes revealed that a Miami assistant city manager is under investigation for possibly rigging a city contract bid.

While WAMI's commitment to local news is still very much in question, there is little doubt that station honchos have done an excellent job wooing favor with the local media. To plug WAMI's behind-the-scenes look at the Herald newsroom, the daily paper placed an article about WAMI on the front page. Ocean Drive magazine, which got its own show, also published a flattering profile of Leshem. The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel is not in any way affiliated with WAMI. Last week its television critic, Tom Jicha, declared that WAMI's first week on the air "skirts truth-in-advertising laws in billing itself as big-time."

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