Just in time for Christmas, little ol' Vermont gets something it's been missing for more than four years - a third local TV news operation!
Fox 44's news team finally hit the Vermont airwaves Monday night at 10 p.m. with its inaugural half-hour local newscast. New faces in new places. Welcome, guys and gals!
The new Fox 44 "News at Ten" - which will run seven nights a week - adds a little competition in the nation's 92nd-largest TV market. Several of the folks in front of the cameras have New England pasts or Vermont ties (such as Lyndon State College), and they've been spending the past two months "practicing" and getting to know the territory.
The other day "Inside Track" sat down with the folks in charge: General Manager Bill Sally and News Director Kathleen Harrington. Bill's an upstate New York farm boy who was a sports director at a TV station in Utica.
Kathleen grew up in Massachusetts. Moved here last May from Virginia. The Vermont Fox news operation is being built from the ground up. They've hired a staff of 22 and are high-tech - though savvy surfers would say the station's website needs serious attention.
"Right after we launch," said Sally, "we'll start a full redesign and rebuild of our website, and then a full relaunch in January."
Television news junkies out there may have noticed WCAX-TV recently started a 10 o'clock newscast available in HDTV and accessible on premium cable channels. Was Fox 44's news operation responsible for Ch. 3 News' upgrade?
"I don't want to flatter myself," replied the Fox GM, "but I think from a marketing standpoint, they realize the value of it."
"Technically, I guess, we're not the first one at 10," conceded Sally, "But we'll really be the first one at 10 that everyone can see, because it'll be available over the air, satellite, cable, everywhere. It'll be on our analog channel as well as our digital."
The Fox 44 "News at Ten" kickoff this week puts a third competitor in the TV market for the first time since WVNY/ABC-22 folded its tent back in 2003. Talented, experienced people they were, but WCAX and WPTZ had been at it "forever," and pretty much had the local news audience divvied up. Of course, ABC-22 News tried to beat the big boys at their own game with more of the same. Yours truly suggests something a little "outside the box" might be required, eh?
What's going to set Fox 44 News apart?
"The big difference, first and foremost," answered Sally, "is that we can do a 10 o'clock news and our competition can't." Sally said he did not want to "discount or discard" the effort the Ch. 3 crew has put into pumping out a new, additional 10 p.m. newscast, "but it's really only available on their digital channel and to digital-tier customers on Comcast."
According to Sally, Fox 44's is a "very early-to-bed television market." Lifestyles in the Internet Age, he noted, are changing. Unlike CBS, NBC and ABC, Fox offers two hours of prime-time programming instead of three. They're able to get to the viewer earlier, before they get to bed.
At least that's the theory.
"We're creating a category where we can be first," said Sally, and that's by offering a 10 o'clock news.
Bingo! "So you'll be able to say, 'We're No. 1!' right?"
"Yeah," he answered.
WFFF, the Vermont-based Fox station occupying the same building as ABC-22 atop Watertower Hill in Colchester, has been in operation for 10 years. They will not have bureaus in Plattsburgh or Montpelier.
"What do you want to be seen as by viewers?" we asked.
"As energetic people," answered News Director Harrington, "who are going to tell compelling stories that are going to matter to us, regardless of whether you live in Vermont, New Hampshire or New York."
As for political coverage, don't hold your breath. The goings-on under Montpeculiar's Golden Dome are not high on Kathleen's priority list.
"I think the stories that I've seen covered here on the Legislature make better newspaper stories," said Harrington.
"When you're doing a story about education funding," she said, "you need to see what's happening in schools, where the money's gone, what they cannot buy, and how strapped a school district may be. You need to see that," said the new news director, "as opposed to talking to a bunch of men sitting at desks."
Yes, indeed, a big week at the Vermont Fox affiliate with a local news launch. Much anticipated.
"What news does more than anything," said Sally, "is it really becomes the face of the TV station. We've been almost faceless," until now, Bill acknowledged. "And the best part of it is, we will be creating it as we go along. That's why we're not coming out and saying this is who we are. This thing really will take shape and evolve as we continue to get further along in this process."
"This is just the launch on Monday," noted the Fox 44 GM. "My challenge to Kathleen," said Boss Bill, "is to produce a compelling product that, when people miss it, they toss and turn all night long."
Naked News at Ten?
Congressional Caffeine - Bumped into Vermont's distinguished freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives the other day down at Speeder & Earl's coffee shop in Big Bad Burlap. The snowstorm had changed his schedule. Events canceled. Schools closed. Congressman Peter Welch, let it be known, buys his own beans. Looks like almost everyone drinks the stuff these days, eh?
Anyway, Welchie was gracious enough to grant my request for a little one-on-one interview over the java juice. And the question on the tip of our tongue was whether Vermont's congressman appreciates the frustration, depression and anger so many Vermonters are feeling over the Democratic Congress' inability to stop the Bush-Cheney bloodbath in Iraq.
"Absolutely!" replied Rep. Welch. "Of course I appreciate the frustration. People voted in November (2006), and within six weeks after I'd been elected, people were coming up to me and saying, 'Peter, you ran against the war.'
"And I'd say, 'Right.'
"And they'd say, 'Well?'"
Voters in Vermont, as well as across the country, turned out to the polls last November, said Welch, noting, "They had their hearts set on voting for a change in direction, and they did!" They wanted to bring the troops home and change the way the economy was going.
Well, as we all know, the troops haven't started coming home - we've sent more to fuel a "surge." And economy-wise, the "R" word - recession - is being bandied about quite freely in the last couple weeks.
Great leadership, eh?
The "bottom line," Welch told us, is that President George W. Bush has "an immense amount of power."
"We've got the votes in the House to limit funding on the war, to bring our troops home and set a date-certain," said Vermont's lone congressman. "We passed legislation to do that twice. We don't have the votes in the Senate," where 60 votes are required in the 100-member body to end debate.
So far, even with a couple Republican defectors, the "good guys" in the Senate have only been able to make it four or five short of the necessary 60 votes required to end debate.
Back in March, the congressman noted, he had been part of the 218-member majority that would have brought the troops home from Iraq "with a date-certain of August of next year."
That failed in the Senate.
Welch also supported a bill in May, he said, that would have brought the troops home this year.
It mustered just 171 votes in the 435-member House.
"That was the high-water mark of the antiwar vote," said Welch.
"Some of the attacks on what I've done are just flat-out wrong," Welch told "Inside Track."
He subsequently voted "no" on President Bush's request for "blank-check funding" for the Iraq war, and "yes" on $50 billion for the war that came with strings attached, i.e., a redeployment date to begin with 30 days of adoption and a requirement that all U.S. soldiers are out of Iraq by the end of 2008.
"That one's stalled in the Senate," said Welchie, "and the president says he'll veto it."
When it comes to the Iraq war, said Rep. Welch, "my record's the same as Bernie's and Patrick's."
Queen of the House? - Last year at this time lawmakers headed to Montpelier with two big items on their "to-do" list: climate-change legislation and campaign-finance reform. The Democrat-controlled House and Senate passed two bills, but Republican Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed them both. His vetoes were sustained in the House last summer.
Instead, the Dems have had to sit back and wait for Catamount Health to kick in this fall. Catamount Health is the watered-down version of the Democrats' reform attempt that Gov. Douglas gave his blessing to and, in doing so, received national acclaim - including an award from AARP!
Catamount Health's critics say it will do "too little" to help "too few" and will not make significant progress until the profit motive no longer runs health care in the United States of America. Anyone who's seen Michael Moore's Sicko knows that.
In fact, at Saturday's House Democratic Caucus under the Golden Dome in Montpelier, yours truly shared health-care stories with a 60-year-old lawmaker. He and his wife, he said, pay $700 a month for their health insurance coverage and it comes with - get this - a $10,000 deductible!
Great country, eh?
Afterwards, House Speaker Gaye Symington bristled when asked about her accomplishments.
"I have Catamount Health to show for it," she replied. "I know you don't think that's anything, but we've actually made progress. We've actually moved off the dime," she said, "and moved forward off the status quo with health care."
Madam Speaker acknowledged the Catamount Plan was but a "first step." And she promised there would be "concrete proposals on the table for how we move forward."
In addition, the majority Democrats will have "energy legislation that will focus back on saving Vermonters money." Speaker Symington also promised, "We will continue to focus on property taxes and know that budget decisions affect property taxes.
"So, there's three things," she said curtly.
But it's all so "broad brush," we suggested.
"This is a legislature," the Speaker informed us. "There is a legislative process. It's not my job," said Symington, "to sit here and tell different people what to do."
So that's the problem, eh?
"I'm not Queen," said Speaker Gaye. "I'm Speaker. You and I have a different concept of my job."
Whatever you say, yer majesty.
Racine for Gov? - That was the story in Vermont's mainstream press as the week began. Democratic State Sen. Doug Racine was thinking about running.
A lot of people just chuckled. No doubt Republican Gov. Jim Douglas was among them.
The only way the Vermont Left - the "opposition" - can make the incumbent chief executive of Vermont break a sweat is if it aligns behind one candidate.
Let's face it. It's now-or-never time for Progressive Anthony Pollina. Put-up-or-shut-up time. Many Democrats like Pollina and would have no problem backing him. There are a bunch who wouldn't. But, hey, the guy's middle-aged these days. Has kids in college.
On the issues, it's hard to find any differences between Pollina and popular "lefties" such as Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders.
If Tony the Prog can demonstrate he has broad support and quickly raise some significant cash to back it up, the more moderate Dems just might see the light.
But, even then, Gov. Scissorhands would be a solid favorite. The Middlebury Marvel is a master of his craft.
No one disputes that anymore.