Good Morning, Rabbit Ears

A new TV station is born, but is anyone watching?

"Gooood morning, everybody," the guy with the comb-over bellows before stopping himself and turning to the blond woman on his right. "I mean, gooood morning, Florida. Ha, ha, ha." It's just the kind of cheery greeting Bob Nichols wants for his opening monologue on his new show, Good Morning Florida. But his satisfaction is short-lived. A technician in the control booth quickly realizes there's actually another 30 seconds left till airtime. Nichols will have to try again. He has a half minute to plan the birth of a brand-new television station, WBWP-TV (Channel 57). "Goddamn it," Nichols rants, tugging at wires running to the phone and computer on the desk in front of him. "Do we really have to have all this crap on here?"

Finally, producer Randi Wilson gives Nichols and cohost Wendy Brown the silent countdown to begin the first day of South Florida's newest television station. Because there has been little promotion, there are likely no more than a few dozen viewers, mostly family members of the station's 30 employees. But the show is important; the station's owners hope it will help convince cable companies to carry Channel 57. Otherwise, WBWP -- which began broadcasting last week -- can be picked up only by rabbit-ears-using viewers from the Broward County line to Port St. Lucie.

In addition, investors across the country are monitoring the station's launch to see if its novel approach of stressing local content should be copied. As cable has become mainstream in the past two decades, such independent stations have been relegated to the graveyard of UHF. Ironically, their success now depends upon cable companies' agreeing to carry them.

Lots of cheese: Bob Nichols hosts Good Morning Florida with Wendy Brown (left). Baker Eileen Davis appeared on their show last week.
Colby Katz
Lots of cheese: Bob Nichols hosts Good Morning Florida with Wendy Brown (left). Baker Eileen Davis appeared on their show last week.

Channel 57's first broadcast was supposed to have been in early May, and an outright failure of the first show could be a major setback. So it's up to Nichols to successfully employ his game-show-host voice and the signature smile across his pudgy, middle-aged cheeks.

Nichols has spent more than 30 years as a local TV reporter and anchor. He had a rocky exit from WPEC-TV (Channel 12) three years ago when the station asked him to take a 50 percent pay cut. He says he accepted the job with Channel 57 because he'll get the chance, for the first time, to explore issues deeper than a two-minute segment. At somewhere over 49 years old (he won't say beyond that), he'll probably end his career on this hourlong show, which airs every weekday at 10 a.m. "Gooood morning, everybody," he begins, "I'm Bob Nichols."

"And I'm Wendy Brown."

The two give viewers a rundown of the new show. They'll invite guests from the community, sip coffee, and banter about the day's news. Nichols picks up a copy of the Palm Beach Post. The sports page is splashed with a photo illustration of golfer Annika Sorenstam with a tomato smashed on her face. "The big news today," Nichols says, "is Annika Sorenstam. Who threw a tomato at her?"

"That's not very nice," Brown says. Her blue eyes and blond hair, worn in the retro style of Mary Tyler Moore, make her look very much the part of a Kelly Ripa-grade sidekick.

After a bit of light chatter from both of them on Sorenstam, Nichols is ready for the next topic. "Oh, by the way: A happy birthday goes out."

"To the pope."

"That's right, Wendy. He's 83."

Behind the bank of lights glaring down on the couple, two guys in headphones jump between three cameras. They're trying unsuccessfully to avoid filming the wires draped across the floor, the unfinished paint at the bottom of the walls, and the mismatched rug. The cramped set for Good Morning Florida shares the room with most of the 12 other shows that will be broadcast on WBWP. Behind the cameras is the set for a sports program to be taped later, and at the end of the room, leather chairs and desks are piled up for other shows. The set is reminiscent of MTV's Remote Control. Nichols might as well be filming it in his mother's basement.

In the adjacent control room, a half-dozen voices sound as if a bar fight is brewing. WBWP didn't have the money for soundproof walls in its headquarters, which is on Central Industrial Park Drive next to a gas station in Riviera Beach and marked only with the sign, "Office space available."

"Doooon't go away," Nichols trumpets with a sideways smile.

"We'll be right back," Brown promises.

Nichols throws down his glasses. His thin gray hair flies out of place for the first time. "Tell them to quit screaming in there!" He jabs a thumb at the control booth over his shoulder. "We can't concentrate with them screaming!"

Brown gets a fresh coat of powder as the two cohosts move to a couch next to the desk. Their first guest, a "life coach," sinks into the cream-colored cushions. "We have a young man who's very interesting," Nichols tells his audience when the show returns. He explains that a life coach can help people plan their goals. "I'm not going to say I've messed up things over the years, but there's always a chance that we could make things better."

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