The man most responsible for turning WSMV-Channel 4's newscast into a generic and, at times, embarrassing operationwhile giving this space a trove of entertaining materialis out of job.
The Meredith Corp., Channel 4's parent company, dismissed Kevin O'Brien, the president of its broadcast group, last week citing violations of the company's equal opportunity policies. O'Brien, who lives in Las Vegas, has an unlisted number and couldn't be reached for comment.
We would have had a lot to talk about. In 2001, O'Brien, a former officer in the U.S. Army's Security Agency, took over Meredith Broadcasting and its 12 television stations and began a protracted period of regime change. Looking to remake broadcast journalism, he left behind a graveyard of deposed staffers. O'Brien watched five of the company's general managers resign, including Channel 4's Frank DeTillio, a seven-year veteran of Channel 4, during O'Brien's first eight months on the job. Later, Channel 4 news director Mark Shafer left as the station's ratings fell well beyond market leader WTVF-Channel 5.
But beyond the personnel shakeups, O'Brien brought a fast-paced and, well, ludicrous brand of broadcast journalism to Channel 4 that failed to uplift ratings. O'Brien encouraged stories that didn't exceed one minute and 15 seconds. He also advocated live shots and props, which often turned reporters into talking mimes. During the state budget debates of 2002, reporters would be live at Legislative Plaza during the 10 p.m. newscast, even though the scene there was eerily quiet by then. In addition, staffers say that O'Brien always wanted his reporters doing something other than talking, whether it was holding a door, picking up a sign or moving something with their hands. If you muted a typical broadcast, it appeared that the reporters were stuck playing a game of charades.
In 2002, a nationwide study of local newscasts deemed Channel 4's newscast the worst in Nashville and gave it one of the lowest grades in the entire report.
With O'Brien, it was never clear what demoralized his reporters more: his leadership or his speeches. In one meeting with Channel 4 staff, he told them flat-out that "journalism doesn't work," one staffer recalls. He also allegedly told Channel 4 reporters that anybody interested in doing quality, long-form journalism should go work for PBS.
"He can be very much the bully," Lorraine Grula, a former Channel 4 staffer, told Desperately shortly after O'Brien's arrival. "At one point, he told the staff that he wanted everybody to be happy. Then he turns around and says that everybody here is lazy and needs to work harder and that it's our fault the station is in trouble. Then ...he can't understand why morale is down."
Thanks to O'Brien, Channel 4 also tore down the time-honored wall between sales and news. Last year, the station allowed sports anchor Rudy Kalis to star in an ad for Dr. Ming Wang in exchange for free eye surgery. As it turns out, Meredith bragged about that practice in its 2003 annual report, saying: "Now everyone at each station, including news anchors and other on-air personalities, is playing a role in generating advertising revenues...."
O'Brien didn't really try to spin his company's stated practice of whoring out its news talent. Talking to Desperately for the first (and perhaps last) time, O'Brien explained it rather simply. "Everyone in the company will do everything possible to help in the sales effort," he said. "If there's a client that happens to like one of our anchors, our talent will go out and visit with the client."
In the last year or so, O'Brien's influence at Channel 4 seemed to wane. The station began airing longer, less formulaic stories, and of course, the welcome addition of Larry Brinton gave the otherwise generic station a jolt of personality. Still, when O'Brien was fired, the staff at Channel 4 were jubilant. There are some talented reporters and anchors there, and now they'll have more of a chance to show it.
Whatever happened to....
Last month the City Paper celebrated its 4th anniversary without its founder Brian Brown. The brainscharitably speakingbehind the City Paper, Brown left the paper earlier this summer, selling his remaining interest to Dewitt Thompson IV and his son DeWitt Thompson V.
"I'm happy with what worked out," Brown says. "I think the paper is in good shape and ready to prosper...."
Brown insists that he "didn't lose money" and that "it was a tremendous experience."
Actually, Brown deserves a good deal of credit for making a paper out of scratch. While the safe, non-controversial paper is more Gannett than The Tennessean, people read the City Paper and seem to like it. When he started out, Brown said he wanted to bring back old-fashioned investigative journalism. As it turned out, the risk-adverse paper doesn't do any aggressive reporting, but its manner of handily recapping local news stories has found an audience, if not an advertising base.
Meanwhile, the City Paper is still looking for a publisher. Oddly enough, rumors have swirled for weeks now that Republican attorney Lew Conner was being considered for the job. Conner, who sits on the City Paper board but has no hands-on experience in journalism, told Desperately he plans to remain in law.