No Fish Story

How a TV station promised a big one but delivered nada

Jackie Johnson is just about everybody's favorite weather chick and television feature reporter. The WSVN-TV Channel 7 hottie is "America's sexiest weather girl," says; several local publications, including this one, have dubbed her outstanding television weather forecaster in their "best of" issues. With that cute little Barbie figure of hers, the perky upbeat delivery, the spunky readiness to handle odd assignments, she easily attracts the avid attention of male sports fans.

But Jackie's at her best not when she's juggling tropical storm fronts and drops in barometric pressure, but when she's doing her regular news segment, "Living It Up." Here, like a real-life action adventure heroine, she gamely takes on a sweeping range of assignments. Is there anything that Jackie won't do? This year she has, among many others, done a stint as a Florida Marlins Mermaid, kicked field goals with the Miami Dolphins, driven an 18-wheeler, and, after a World Series game last week, stepped in as a Benihana hibachi grill chef. Emphasis is heavily on Jackie's glamorous presence. ("It's getting a little steamy in here," she told her Benihana mentor. "I could get a facial.")

This being South Florida, how could "Living It Up" forget fishing? Think of the video possibilities: Jackie on the poop deck, rod bent, legs tensed, cute little drops of perspiration on her forehead, hooking sailfish that jump animatedly out of the blue Atlantic.

Last May, Johnson's producers hooked up with local deep-sea legend and loudmouth self-promoter Mark "The Shark" Quartiano for an all-day deep sea excursion, and they apparently struck video gold. "We got some awesome footage," Quartiano says. "They wanted to catch a couple of sailfish and a shark, and that's what they got." Jackie gamely fought one 100-pound beauty for two hours before it submitted.

The segment was scheduled to run May 14, and the station generously promoted it. There were clips of Jackie fighting the fish and, on the day of the scheduled airing, a promo urging viewers to stay tuned for Jackie. "Wait till you see what she caught!" came the tease.

Like red-blooded males all over South Florida, Tailpipe bought an extra six-pack that night, oiled up with a bottle of EZ Off emissions remover, and settled in front of the tube. But the show never showed. No Jackie "living it up" on Quartiano's fishing boat Striker-I.

This pipe's disappointment turned into a murky funk (let's just say it involves a lot of black smoke) when it learned that Jackie and her producers were not only oblivious to the knotty environmental issues associated with billfishing, but that they had been prepared to perpetrate a hoax. A few weeks before Jackie's outing, Quartiano received a breezy I-was-just-thinking email from Jackie's producer, Lauren Kahn: "Hey, Mark, one thing I forgot... not that this will happen, but just in case Jackie doesn't catch anything, will you have some prop sharks or recently caught sharks that we can show and make it look like she caught something???"

Prop sharks! Bummer. This raised questions. Was that really Jackie kicking a field goal or aiming the big rig down the highway? A tremor of distrust rattled the Pipe like a long mean stretch of potholed country road.

Of course, the journalism bar isn't very high over at WSVN, a Fox affiliate that likes to call itself "the news station." This is the station that last week turned its entire news operation over to marketing the World Series (aside from Marlins coverage, the lead story for two days running was a fire in a walk-in storage unit), complete with reporters wearing Marlins caps and T-shirts. Reporter Richard Lemus, who was planted for three days in front of the Bal Harbour Sheraton, where the Yankees were housed, ruminated about dropping cyanide into the New Yorkers' breakfasts.

But Alice Jacobs, WSVN's vice president for news, says she canceled the billfishing segment on "journalistic principle." As the news department was preparing to air it, Jacobs contends, the station received hundreds of calls and email messages from viewers saying that Mark the Shark was notoriously unsavory. "In all my years in the business, I've never seen a reaction like this," Jacobs says. "There was an outcry from our viewers that Mark the Shark was an unethical sport fisherman."

Channel 7 barely dodged the environmentalist buzz saw. It's as simple as this: Hooking a sailfish, among the world's most beloved species, is OK as far as the modern angling community is concerned. Bringing it back to the dock as a trophy, as Quartiano did -- no good. (The hammerhead shark, which was on the small side anyway, was set free.) With stocks of marlin and sailfish shrinking, the industry standard now is catch-and-release, says Ellen Peel, president of the Billfish Foundation, a Fort Lauderdale-based nonprofit conservation group.

"It's rare nowadays ever to see an Atlantic sailfish actually landed," Peel says. Who knew? Or maybe the question should be: Who didn't know?

Asked if Jackie and her producers were aware of the catch-and-release requirement, Jacobs responds lamely. "That's not what the show was about. It was about sport fishing in South Florida."

Quartiano is one of the few who has no compunction about bringing 'em back dead. The Fort Lauderdale fishing veteran is bluntly outspoken in his views, and he doesn't mind being called the Darth Vader of the angling community. He claims that there's no point in releasing a caught sailfish because it will die anyway. "There's no reason to cut it loose so it will sink to the bottom," he says. He contends that Jackie herself hoped to have her sailfish mounted, but bridled at the high costs of taxidermy. Quartiano says he donated the dead sailfish to researchers.

The Fort Lauderdale captain is a blathering idiot, Peel suggests. Sailfish that have been caught, tagged, and then released show up by the thousands in subsequent catches, she adds. "The evidence shows clearly that they do survive release," Peel says.

Quartiano himself has a more basic concern. He never got paid, he says.

The idea had been for him to participate in the project not for money but for the obvious promotional opportunity. "There's a tradeoff, though," Quartiano says. "You spend all day with somebody, you expect to get something in return."

After realizing the segment would never be broadcast, Mark the Shark sent the show a bill in June: $3,042, including the cost of renting two boats for the day, a standard gratuity for the crew, and four early-morning hours of bait fishing. A month later, after no response from the station, Quartiano's lawyer Karl Schumer says he called Dan Schwab, WSVN's executive producer for special projects, who lightheartedly dismissed the bill. "He said it was the source of great laughs in the office," Schumer says. Quartiano is suing in Miami-Dade Small Claims Court.

"He offered us a free ride to do a story on sport fishing," WSVN's Jacobs says. "All of his claims are false, he's trying to give a false impression of Channel 7, and he's motivated by his lawsuit."

Mark the Shark professes to be disillusioned. Jackie is a big disappointment in person, he says. "Honestly, she's overrated to the max," Quartiano says. "I don't want to say she's a mannequin, but she's pretty weak personality-wise. And physically, well, she's, uh, very wiry. I don't know what TV does for her, but it's not the same in person."

Step back, please. Tailpipe is just going to pull down the garage door and settle in for a long dark hibernation.

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Edmund Newton