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 long day -- a day filled with maddening technical glitches -- had left Miller, Sloan, and Leshem exhausted. Still the men waxed optimistic as they settled in to watch WAMI's first evening of prime-time programming. Neil at Night was the lead-off show, a half-hour video version of Neil Rogers' foul-mouthed and popular radio talk show. Miller and Leshem laughed at Rogers' ribald jokes. Someone relayed a bawdy wisecrack Rogers had made about Barry Diller's homosexuality, which the TV show's producers had carefully excised from the video broadcast. Then came the commercial.

But instead of a seamless segue into a spot for Pollo Tropical, the screen on the TV faded completely black, except for a block of white letters that read "BREAK #1." It was an incredible gaffe, hardly the "network quality" stuff promised in the station's brochure for advertisers. Leshem threw his six-foot-four-inch frame onto the floor and pounded the carpet in mock hysterics. Jon Miller showed less humor. Brusquely he ordered me from the room. The door slammed as soon as I left, but not before Sloan was also ejected.

The door swung open and Miller emerged. He yanked Sloan into another office. Even with the door closed, Miller could be heard (and seen through a glass wall) ripping into Sloan for letting a reporter from a newspaper -- specifically from a newspaper that does not have a programming partnership with the station -- see this embarrassing mistake.

Of course I could have seen the mistake just as easily if I had been watching at home. The only thing different about watching it with these WAMI hotshots was that I got to see Miller bawl out his underlings.

The display of frayed nerves was not exactly a shocker. Throughout the month or so I spent observing WAMI's preparations to air, it became increasingly obvious that there was a huge gap between the station's promises -- a veritable reinvention of the local programming form -- and what it was actually delivering.

By launch day eight hours of local programming were on the air. Leshem vowed that the station would eventually feature local stuff 24 hours a day. He did not have a time line, however, for when that lofty goal would be met. Leshem also reiterated that he wasn't worried about ratings during WAMI's infancy -- a good thing, because so far they've been anemic. Nor was the Pollo Tropical debacle an isolated flub. Sound levels have fallen so low as to be inaudible. Segments of programming have inadvertently been repeated. On the station's third broadcast day, a truck ran into the WAMI transmitter in Miramar, knocking the station off the air for several hours.

The truck accident wasn't an internal problem, of course, but most of the other glitches witnessed during the first couple of weeks on air were attributed to the inexperienced staff. Spokesman Adam Ware claimed the start-up kinks would be ironed out within four weeks. After nine weeks, maximum, everything would be running as smoothly as at any major network.

But the entire birthing process of WAMI was one that left most of its staff exhausted and not a little churlish. Leshem himself, perhaps the station's most visible booster, sounded downright ambivalent when asked how long he planned to stay with Diller's flagship. "As long as necessary," he said in one breath, and then in the next: "People don't stay with one job very long any more, and I am a man of many interests.

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