Good Morning, Rabbit Ears
"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.
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."
The screaming from the control room is now drowning out the couple. Finally, one of the technicians realizes why and slams shut the sliding doors to the set with a thud.
Brown, meanwhile, isn't adding much. She has yet to get her television legs. After all, her only on-air experience is as host of a call-in radio show in Stuart. Her full-time job is four kids back home in Palm City, but she got this job thanks to the quick wit she displays easily off-camera. "Bob, you know he reads 52 books a year," Brown says of their guest.
"Well, so do I," Nichols says with an insincere laugh.
"You can't count periodicals," Brown returns, finally employing some sidekick jest.
"Is this how it's going to go every day?"
They take a second commercial break, and Nichols really lets his staff have it. "I hate this!!" he screams. "We can't see anything! There ought to be a monitor in here." The producer explains that the monitor, along with the cordless microphones, is on back order. Besides, the station's owners, a partnership that includes former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Dan Ross, has been trying to keep down costs. In his glory days, Nichols would've refused to work in such conditions.
The station is hoping Nichols' professionalism will rub off on its other shows, which will mainly be run by locals with no TV experience. There's a nightly call-in show hosted by high schoolers and talk shows on computers and alternative medicine. Eventually, the station hopes to join a new network called Omni Broadcasting. Channel 57's general manager, Steve Sarafian, isn't sure what Omni will carry or when it will start (the network also had several delayed launches), but he says it's something to do with family shows. He referred questions to the Omni website. A number for the network's corporate headquarters, listed on the site, is answered by a recording that says, "We're sorry. That is not a valid mailbox."
Channel 57's managers say ad prices are, for now, very flexible. That's at least until the station lands on cable and ads can go for a premium. But the strategy seems flawed: Sarafian is hoping antenna-powered folks will lobby the cable companies to carry the station. To make that work, people who lack cable will have to have an interest in getting good programming on cable. And there aren't many television antennae in use. Adelphia Cable has 550,000 subscribers in Palm Beach County, the vast majority of TV viewers. Nationally, only about one in seven homes uses an antenna.
Yet Sarafian sounds confident. "Things are going to change around here in the next three years," he promises.
After the life coach, the show's second guest is Animal Rescue League employee Jennifer Wourms, who has in tow a curly-tailed dog named Kiley. Nichols and Brown didn't have a chance to quiz their guests before the show, so answers aren't ready. In fact, Brown arrived about five minutes before airtime, blaming her late arrival on traffic. "So, do you think she's good with children?" Bob asks.
"I've never seen her with children, so I don't know," Wourms answers as she tries to turn Kiley toward the camera. Thanks to the upsweep of the curly tail, viewers are getting an eyeful of the dog's back side.
"Come on, Kiley, turn around for the camera," Nichols begs the dog, who proceeds to hack up some saliva on the carpet.
After another commercial, the couple moves back to the desk to introduce taped interviews with the hosts of WBPW's other shows. But the control booth loses track of time, and the show returns with the hosts rambling about their coffee mugs and bumping shoulders. Brown, holding an Oreos mug, notes that the cookies are on sale. Finally, realizing that the cameras are on, the two try to give out their number for callers.
"The number is 561-563 --" Wendy offers, before realizing she doesn't know the rest.
"That's not the number," Nichols says... after a second or two of dead airtime.
From the open door to the control booth, Sarafian yells, "That's not the number. We'll get it for you in a minute."
During the final commercial break, Nichols takes on the role of elder statesman. "Did I ever tell you about the time they tried to break me up on air? It must have been 25 years ago."
"Oh, boy, 25 years ago," Brown says, leaning her head back on Nichols' shoulder.
"They put a stripper beside the camera and made her undress, right there as I was doing the 6 o'clock news!"
Now that's good TV.
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