At 5 a.m. on March 1, a tape of Oscar Goodman doing the sign-on introduction for the newly launched Channel 35 kicked in. KYRK had become KVTE. "Hi, I am Mayor Oscar Goodman, mayor of the greatest city in the world, Las Vegas, Nevada. Welcome. You know we have everything here, we have the best restaurants, the best destination resorts, we have the best entertainment, we have the best shopping, and it's our centennial year, which makes it even more special." A transmitter atop Black Mountain beamed the message to any Luddites in the Las Vegas Valley left with a UHF antenna instead of cable on the family television.
In a nondescript office park—where the building architecture resembles rental storage units—near Sunset and Pecos roads, Robin Leach, watching the mayor's taped greeting on a monitor in the station's production office and studio, erupted into a cheering roar. Goodman had agreed to participate in the launch as a personal favor to Leach, and Leach saw in this UHF station a base from which he could build a national Vegas-themed cable network. It seemed a long shot for a station that was not yet on local cable, but Leach believed in the possibilities strongly enough that three months ago, in addition to his tireless labors and in exchange for being promised carte blanche in programming control, he invested his own money into the project ($250,000 up front and another $250,000 in deferred compensation). According to Nathan Drage, an attorney from Salt Lake City who is the station's principal owner:
"It wasn't the money. It was that it was Robin Leach's money. That's an amazing validation. It is also Robin Leach. Robin is focusing on programming. When he got here he said the programming we had was horrendous, but he could see the future. That is his forte. He wrote the bible on that. He knows all of that. Robin is a machine. People think he just spends his time on yachts in the Mediterranean, but he is a workaholic and he has to be to make this succeed."
Leach's confidence came from having done this before. Among his many television ventures, Leach had participated in the birth of the Food Network. Now, he was ready to do it again, and saw Las Vegas, where he has been a resident for six years, as a perfect subject for a cable network. As Leach put it in the press release announcing his partnership with Drage on January 24:
"For a long time now since I first brought cameras from different cable channels to town to focus on the entire Vegas scene, the Strip has been playing host to reality shows, game shows, celebrity gaming. The time was right to now tackle that adventure for ourselves and export out rather than importing in. Can there be any better city in the world to headquarter a new gaming television channel? We are the city that truly never sleeps. We have it all with the world's best resort hotels, the world's best chefs and now superb shopping and regal residences. "
And, of course, who better than the former host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to make engaging programming out of this view of Las Vegas. Nathan Drage put it this way: "Anyone who wants to do anything in this town with television contacts Robin Leach. No matter who it is, they contact Robin Leach and say what they are interested in doing and see what he thinks. He can be blunt. But really what Vegas is about is lifestyles of the rich and famous. When people come here to Vegas they live a fantasy for a couple days in which they are the rich and famous."
But champagne wishes and caviar dreams are built on grinding work. Senior Producer Anissa Christal, standing next to Leach, was too sleep-deprived to cheer along with her boss at the moment of launch. "By 5 a.m. I'd been there over 24 hours. I was exhausted, tired and wanted to throw up and I was still wearing the same clothes." Christal also wasn't done with her work yet; there was a taping still a few hours away, at 10:30 a.m., for one of her shows, Counter Intelligence, a report on the restaurant industry. "My main job at that point was trying to stay awake for the Counter Intelligence taping." Though wiped out, that didn't mean she wasn't every bit as thrilled. "I thought 'We did it!'" she recalls. "We were tired and happy."
Actually, if it had been left to Christal, a former producer at local KVVU Fox-5 who had come to KVTE to work for Leach, the launch would have been delayed. "I didn't think we were ready. And a lot of other people didn't think we were ready." Not that she didn't do everything she could. Christal had spent much of her time the previous 21 days working around the clock to get the three shows that Leach made her responsible for ready for launch day. And that wasn't her only responsibility. In addition, she produced the mayor's sign-on sequence as well as a long special on the premiere of KA. So, like many other KVTE employees, Christal didn't think she had enough time in the weeks leading to March 1 to do everything required of her. But Robin wouldn't budge. "I wasn't the only one. More than one person tried to tell him that he should move the launch back. But he was consistent that we were going to launch March 1. I think that was one of his successes. I learned that it wasn't his purpose to be sure we were ready, but that if you keep postponing the launch date until you are ready, it is going to keep getting postponed and it becomes just one more day that you are not on the air. So I don't know if we were ready, but we pulled it off and at that point it was where we needed to be. It turned out to be really smart because it kind of pushed everybody to the next level, and sometimes you have to have a deadline for that. That was the biggest learning experience."
Leach likes people who get things going. That Drage already owned a station and was already hoping to create a Vegas network with it went a long way with Leach. According to Drage, "I said to him later on, 'Robin, you know people with a lot more money than I got. I mean, I am nobody in this industry and my balance sheet is nothing compared to anyone else. Why did you say yes to my project?' And he said, 'Because you had the station and you started. Everyone else wanted to talk about it and you wanted to do it.' His point is that when you have it right you can come from the most humble beginnings and know where you'll end up."
In truth, Leach, who dubbed himself "Fearless Leader," was not quite as confident as his bluster in the days leading up to launch indicated: "I didn't believe we could pull it off as much as we did. When we started seven weeks earlier we didn't have one tape. For the shows that they had, there were no openings and there was not one piece of music. Now, we have over 1,000 tapes and a library of over 1,500 pieces of music. It was a remarkable effort by a remarkable team of people. I was proud of everybody's work, the people who slaved to make that happen."
About 15 minutes after the broadcast launch, Leach's longtime associate, Nick La Penna, arrived at the station. Since the start of the year, La Penna had been flying in from his base in New York to totally immerse himself in Channel 35: producing shows, coaching and evaluating the hosts and administering much of the programming detail. According to Mary Ann Butcher, a former vice president at ABC who had recently joined to oversee sales at the fledgling station: "Nick La Penna and Robin are partners in the truest sense. They agree, they disagree, but all they were concerned with at that station is making it better." Though La Penna had only left the station about 90 minutes earlier (after working all night), he could not resist returning for the launch. "It was that kind of thing," La Penna says. "Most of us were on that schedule."
Or as Leach put it: "I am not as young as they are, so I had been doing only 18-20-hour days for the four days leading up to that. But the team had been doing 52 hours straight without sleep prior to the opening."
So La Penna, no matter how sleep-deprived, was still excited to be returning to the station: "I was there to be part of and to be witness to the birth of the venture. I was now seeing for the first time the work that had taken place over the previous two months: from planning stages into the actual execution to seeing this officially blast off."
At the end, La Penna was relatively satisfied with what he saw: "All in all, my bigger concern was that there were some real technical issues that had to be addressed from an equipment point of view ... So there were a wide variety of problems, but they were just nuts-and-bolts issues. Yet the programming was significant that day. We were taping shows. We were airing live shows. You really sensed that something special was going on. It is just great when you see people who have worked hard, who have trained for the big event, to watch them excel is the most exciting thing imaginable."
Leach, too, was mostly satisfied: "We have to tighten up everything. Gaps between end of shows and commercial starts are a little sluggish. But hey, it's only day one." To celebrate Leach popped open a three-liter bottle of Perrier Jouet champagne from his own wine cellar, followed by a catered breakfast that arrived with a butler as a gift from Leach's friend, Robert Earl, the leader of another new (albeit far larger) Las Vegas adventure: Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino.
Eating the catered breakfast, former CNN Headline News anchor Bob Losure reminisced with Leach about the similarities between this moment and the early days of that network. Losure, too, was to be involved in Vegas 35. Back in early February, over lunch at Spago, Leach had convinced Losure to host Weekly Report to the People, slated to premiere that Sunday. Listening attentively to the conversation was another Leach friend, actress Joan Severance, whom he had also persuaded to host a series, My Vegas, that was set to begin in two months.
About 15 minutes before the breakfast arrived, Drage arrived. With him was Shenandoah Merrick, who most of the employees of the station knew only as a host of two shows that had aired before Leach took over programming. Though she had a real-estate show, Extravagant Estates (based on an idea given to her by Leach) in development, it was not yet on the schedule. "We determined for an hour-long show we needed at least 10 properties that would illustrate the interesting and exciting places on the market," La Penna says. "And she had not in a reasonable time come up with the properties."
Some staffers were surprised to discover roses had been sent for Merrick to the studio. Christal, who produced more than three shows in the weeks leading to launch, recalls: "On launch morning Shenandoah and Nathan showed up together. There were two dozen red roses for Shenandoah with a card that said 'Break a Leg.' And it was weird since she had nothing to do with any of this. Robin literally did all of the work. I didn't even know she had a role in the station. I was in the office every day leading up to launch and I maybe saw her twice. I just thought she was a show host. That is all I knew about her."
Butcher also noticed Shenandoah's roses and found it odd.
As for Leach's view of Merrick before launch: "I believed she was working closely with Mr. Drage. The only thing that had been talked about was her doing a real-estate show. But she hadn't prepared it. It was still in the planning stage."
In fact, Merrick, in addition to being the host of that real-estate show in development, was also the station's executive vice president. Few of the employees that morning, however, say they were aware of this. Many had never seen Merrick at the station before.
The one person who was definitely aware of her status was Drage. Since January, Drage says, Merrick had been working out of a home office with a computer and printer, and supplies and furniture paid for by the station. Drage explains: "The equipment and furniture belongs to the company and was necessary for her to accomplish what the company asked her to accomplish."
Nor does Drage see anything surprising in the fact that so many of Channel 35's other employees were unaware that Merrick was accomplishing anything at all—besides a real-estate show—for the station. Drage explained via e-mail, "There have always been people serving as officers or directors of the company or the company's parent corporation whom the show hosts, or even producers, are not necessarily aware of nor have met."
Regardless, Drage and Merrick did not stay long at the station on launch morning; they left shortly after the celebration brunch. As Leach wrote in a grateful e-mail to Christal late that evening in which he thanked her for "going way beyond the call of duty and allegiance" before noting "I am sorry Nathan wasn't there to witness ... It was a knockout ... It sure put the professional stamp on the station. I don't know how you'll do better—but know you will."
Butcher, too, on that first day felt she was witnessing the impossible. "I went in the studio and watched J.D. Wells. I would see Nick (La Penna) in there coaching, directing and producing. Then there was Anissa just rocking out when she was in the control room. I was so proud watching some of these young kids learning that there is a difference between the magic you see coming out of this box called television and the hard-ass work that goes into it."
So at the end of the day on March 1, the entire crew applauded and hugged each other. Twenty minutes later Leach was crowing: "There's no doubt that the new look of Vegas TV was born today. There's no doubt that a future network was born today. It is an incredible achievement that today we produced original programming from 5 a.m. launch through now, 13 hours later, and we're still going strong."
Still, for all the remarkable accomplishment Channel 35 remained a station that almost no one could actually watch since it was not yet available over cable. But Leach was working on that issue as well, and had a first meeting on the subject set with Steve Schorr, an executive at Cox Cable, on March 3.
The meeting with Cox took place that afternoon as scheduled, and by all accounts went relatively well. But by the end of that evening, Leach's lawyer released a statement saying he was no longer involved in Channel 35. According to Leach's attorney, John Hannaway: "On March 3, 2005 (Thursday)—at a dinner meeting—Nathan Drage and Robin Leach agreed to sever their relationship at Vegas 35. The agreement had been preceded by discussions during the previous week over personnel and management of the station. Nathan Drage agreed to return to Robin Leach all property brought by Robin Leach to the station, to compensate Robin Leach for creative content and other intellectual property contributed by Robin Leach and to return funds invested by Robin Leach in the company. Further details are being worked out."
Nothing wound up being worked out. Within weeks, La Penna had returned to New York. He never received a penny for his months of efforts at the station (or even reimbursement for his hotels and plane flights to commute). Losure's association with Channel 35 ended when he wasn't paid as agreed, too. Butcher and Christal both resigned, and both had checks for their work at the station returned for insufficient funds. Leach paid Christal's bounced check out of his own pocket.
Then on March 24, Leach filed a lawsuit against Drage. And that Sunday, the entire affair was the lead item in Norm's gossip column in the Review-Journal:
"TV personality Robin Leach wants his $500,000 investment and other expenses returned, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in District Court against his former partner in a TV venture. Leach alleges that Nathan Drage of Salt Lake City reneged on a deal that gave the former host of 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' sole authority of the on-air programming at KVTE-TV, Channel 35. The suit alleges that Drage 'knowingly and fraudulently' omitted from the business plan his intention to give talk-show host Shenandoah Merrick full authority of programming as executive vice president of the station. Leach's goal was to transform KVTE into a global entertainment network. Drage, on Leach's recommendation, had hired former ABC-TV sales executive Mary Ann Butcher as vice president of sales and general manager. Leach also seeks the return of $13,148 in TV production equipment expenses that he put on his credit card and $1,300 to a producer whose KVTE payroll check bounced, it is alleged. Leach contends that Drage and his Mountain Ridge Holdings, Inc. 'misappropriated / or commingled' funds that were used to furnish Merrick's personal residence."
It was a horrible end to a partnership that had begun three months earlier when, ironically, Merrick had introduced Leach and Drage, and the two men discovered they shared a vision: that Las Vegas was a subject ripe for its own cable network.
In Las Vegas a little fame goes a long way; witness Monti Rock III. But Robin Leach is far more than a little famous. Not only does everyone recognize Leach, but there is also his voice—in fact, his voice may even be more famous than Leach. Leach's fame doesn't run very deep—there is no Robin Leach fan club. But Leach's fame is remarkably widespread and that's gold currency in Las Vegas. And Leach does not rely on his fame, but actively uses it. If Leach is on a red carpet he is far more likely to be doing interviews than being interviewed. He gets the celebrities no one else does, because they know that being interviewed by Leach, the premier chronicler of the rich and famous, confers status. In fact, during his time in Las Vegas, Leach has proven a true master at using fame as a functional tool. He goes to every event and opening in town, he meets everyone, he remembers names and he follows up.
Spend any time around him and you learn that Leach's primary job is not the on-camera work he is famous for, but rather all of the behind-the-scenes enterprises that his fame has helped him develop. So typically, Leach was not just the star of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but also the executive producer for a show that ran for 14 years. In short, in joining forces with Leach, Drage knew he was getting a seasoned, experienced and top-of-the-line television executive to run the station: Drage is an absentee owner still practicing law in Salt Lake City, Utah, where his family lives.
Of course, having Leach onboard made for some blunt talk for the sleepy UHF station, where program scheduling amounted to little more than a sign posted in the control room reminding people in gigantic lettering to ask: "What programs are we running today?"
Back in late January, long before things went sour, Drage told me a story that took place when Leach took over programming at Channel 35: "It is a funny story to me," Drage said. Drage and I were sitting in the Channel 35 studio that is in the midst of being revamped with bookcase sets being taken out and new lighting and equipment being put in. "One day, Robin, who has been here every day, says: 'I just really want to say to you how impressed I am. It is just amazing what you have pulled off. You have worked so diligently. You have done what nobody else has done. Instead of talking about it, you did it.' This goes on for a few minutes, and I am feeling great. Then he goes, 'Having said that, it is absolutely horrendous. It is horrible. We have so far to go.' But I know that. I understand that. I said, 'Robin, that's why you are here.'"
Leach was even more brutal in his assessment in an e-mail written to me around the same time he invited me to come behind the scenes to watch him transform the station, "as we convert the world's worst TV station into a masterpiece." Leach then described the current state of affairs as "hosts with bad hairpieces, technical breakdowns, hosts with no TV experience, conspirasists. I could go on and on. It is the Ship of Fools, The Misfits, but I swear by March 1 it will be transformed." How could I resist?
In fact, one of the first things Leach did was have the station manager, Trip Mitchell, send air-check tapes of all the hosts and all of the shows to Nick La Penna in New York to be evaluated. According to Leach, "The station made tapes of everyone who was on the station. One of the first jobs Nick did was review those tapes. He didn't know any of the people; they were total strangers to him."
La Penna, a longtime associate of Leach, has an undergraduate and graduate degrees in television and communications, and has worked in the industry for two decades. During that time he has done every job imaginable: show producer, executive producer, creator and writer. In addition to his work with Leach he has been involved in projects with MTV, A&E, USA Network, The Family Channel, ABC and TNN.
La Penna just wanted to get a random sample of every show. But while Mitchell complied for 14 of the 15 hosts for La Penna, one host was unhappy with this arrangement and she got in touch with Leach directly to complain. It was Merrick. According to Leach, Merrick felt that she wanted to choose the tapes so that it was her best on-air work that showed her best interviewing techniques. Leach agreed.
In general, La Penna's evaluations of the programming on Channel 35 mirrored those of Leach. He found most of the shows were weak, unprofessional and needed changes. Yet La Penna was hardly a hatchet man. His goal was not to eliminate hosts, but to improve their performances. According to Christal: "Nick tried to show people it was about the content. It was what he was trying to teach these people with no television background. Nick made the space into a work environment. He made up and designed and drew up the plans for the set."
Some hosts were extraordinarily receptive to La Penna's feedback as he worked with them on everything from interviewing techniques to wardrobe. For example, radio personality Frank LaSpina had a show originally entitled It's All Good. La Penna recalls: "We changed the name to High Noon And Feeling Good and scheduled it to appear Monday thru Friday at noon. Frank had a career that included working as a local radio talk-show host and musical entertainer. My suggestions to Frank included allowing more of himself to come across in his interviews, increasing his involvement and connection with his guests; bringing a piano onto the set and conducting his interviews with guests seated around the piano; adding a minimum of three guests per hour as compared to the one guest per hour he was previously featuring; incorporating visuals, videotape, stills, etc. to help support each interview; selecting guests that would be of interest to Las Vegas viewers, not only celebrities but friends and neighbors who were doing good things in the community to make Las Vegas a better place, including guests that could share tips on healthy living and problem-solving; using an IFB in his ear to maintain audio contact with the director in the control room to monitor time cues and scheduled breaks; making changes to the organization, segmenting and format of the program; making wardrobe suggestions and grooming/hairstyle suggestions to improve his on camera appearance."
And the results paid off. "I was delighted with all Frank had accomplished, particularly his ability to take the suggestions we had talked about and effectively integrate them into his new program. You could immediately see the improvement and sense that given time, something quirky, unique, charming and original could grow."
Other hosts were less receptive to La Penna's advice. Despite having been the only host to hand-pick her samples, La Penna's evaluation of Merrick's two shows was scathing: "The current state of both programs and host performance lack preparedness and professionalism. The shows are not of a caliber that is acceptable for local programming, let alone that created to reach a national audience. Guest interviews lacked rational directionw when interviewing mortgage brokers; discussions about cuff links, marital status, relationship history and tie selection were embarrassing at the least and hardly informative. Viewing audiences will not find this approach entertaining but rather foolish ..." As for Merrick's look, La Penna noted: "The unfortunate fact is that viewing audiences make stereotypical judgments based on appearances ... Currently her look is more '80s nightlife than mature, professional TV presenter."
But considering his observations and critique of Merrick, La Penna's verdict is surprisingly generous: "I think that finding a proper vehicle that fits Shenandoah's limited experience as a beginner and her complete and total commitment to learn will help make the most of her natural assets." Of course, after reading La Penna's evaluation it isn't exactly clear what "natural assets" he is referring to in this conclusion, and she had not given even a hint of making a commitment to learn.
Though he had no knowledge that Merrick was actually an executive at the station, and despite his rather dim view of her gifts, La Penna dedicated hours trying to come up with a vehicle that worked for her. Extravagant Estates was picked, in part, one suspects, because houses don't need to be interviewed. According to La Penna: "Robin and I had discussed a number of show alternatives for her. She had rejected a number of our suggestions before deciding she would participate in Extravagant Estates. So I had a very long conversation with her, about an hour, in which I went over just what was expected of her as a show host/producer. I had the same conversations with all of the other show hosts, too, in terms of the presentation of a grid and outlining of what the form of the show will actually be and how it will flow. I went over what the elements might be that they need for a show: video, still images, in- studio interviews, taped pieces and how they'd roll in and where segments would be created."
Asked about his evaluation of Merrick's shows from January, La Penna refused to discuss any of his specific suggestions or observations—two others working at the station independently provided the copies of La Penna's written evaluation of Merrick's shows—feeling that his advice and notes on her hosting was confidential. Still, La Penna admits that regardless of the content of his notes or his specific advice, he felt that Merrick was paying no attention to any of it. "She was not somebody who was receptive to constructive criticism. So all I could do was share my observations." Shortly before launch, Merrick returned to the station to record a promo spot. According to La Penna, "I did not see any change come about from what we had discussed."
After receiving La Penna's evaluations of all of the programming, Leach decided radical action was called for. He had planned to run old KYRK shows while getting ready to launch KVTE on March 1. Instead, on January 29 (31 days before launch), he e-mailed a new plan to La Penna and Christal (copying Drage). The e-mail is typical of the detailed and hyperactive instruction style of Leach's mind in motion and a good example of his management style:
Instead of running old KYRK programs , psa's and infomercials while we are redoing the studio I have decided we're better served with a promo loop—that announces our new KVTE as of March 1.
Accordingly I'd like to build a 1+ minute loop that runs as follows:
the Welcome to Las Vegas sign
the flydown the Strip at night in slowmo
some Vegas Strip landmark and nightlife montage
b/g music for this? anything like Viva Las Vegas without rights infringement?
freeze on screen slide in party-invitation graphic : The all new all Vegas all the time Vegas Television Entertainment starts 5am March 1 Previews begin 35 hours earlier!
Jon David v/o slide Big-bold the new 3-5. Unscripted unrehearsed and totally unexpected. Vegas has never seen television like this before. Where will you be March 1
I'd like this up and running as soon as possible on Monday please. Also Monday morning in a mock death ceremony I would like the control room sign " What Programs Are We Running Today" to be removed and buried!!!!!!
Do I need to be aware of anything that creates obstacles with this? Many thanks.
Leach explained his decision to me this way: "It (the programming) was bad. I shut the station down. The station was shut down and given a new launch date so that we could produce enough programming that was of quality, professional, honest and filled with integrity. Some of the old shows that were running were stopped and some were retooled and brought back, and we began with seven new shows."
Such candor did not sit well with some hosts. Other longtime Channel 35 employees were probably not used to the 24/7 pace with which Leach worked and expected others to respond. At 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning in late January, Leach sent an irritated e-mail to Mitchell and to Assistant Station Manager Darlene Mea:
to date I have not received any - let alone ONE - two liner of nine words with show descriptions in the mock TV Guide promo exercise I asked everybody to do on Thursday staff meeting.
Did we get any? Does anybody care? Truth is I do - and passionately. Please ensure this is executed - otherwise we will have to execute those who don't share focused passion.
30-days to relaunch!
It was just one of the over a dozen or so Channel 35-related e-mails Leach shot out that Sunday morning.
On Monday Feb. 7, Mea departed and that same day Leach sent out an e-mail announcing the hiring of Butcher (a former executive at Cisco Systems Inc. and vice president of ABC) as vice president and general manager of the station reporting to Drage and Leach. In e-mail that night to LaPenna and Christal on the hiring of Butcher, Leach reflects:
"I think this makes a fine and strong addition to the team committed to building KTVE into a major cable entity—she will bring confidence from the investment community—she will mastermind the entire sales effort as we go forward."
And so, 23 days before launch, Mary Ann Butcher arrived for her first day at KTVE. Despite her years in the business she was not at all prepared for what she found: "The books were a train wreck," she recalls. "There was truly no system, no backup, no paperwork, no accounts payable and receivable, nothing. I had to ask how much do these people get paid so I could write checks for them."
Not only did she have to straighten that out, Butcher also felt it was important to quickly familiarize herself with the programming. "I met with virtually every host to talk to them about their show so that I knew how I could position it for sponsorship."
After examining the hand she'd been dealt, Butcher developed an approach to tackle her primary goal: to start generating revenue for a station almost no one watched. And, once again the celebrity of Robin Leach turned out to be the key ingredient. "I didn't want to sell $10 and $20 TV spots. I knew I had the challenge of a lifetime in front of me and I was trying to take away the obstacles. Robin had contacts at three of the major infomercial companies. I made arrangement for paid programming overnight so we would have five hours of revenue coming in from midnight to 5 am. We are UHF and we are low-powered and we can't compete against Channel 13 in this town. So instead what Robin and I decided is that we would have a true sponsorship model. I was interested in getting $3,000-$5,000 a month from advertisers who were interested in particular shows. We would give them appearances by Leach. We would provide on-air billboards. We would do all the things we needed to do to make it a robust offering that would be different than anything the other local stations were offering advertisers, because we know we'd lose if we went head-to-head. But we had a model that worked and all we needed was just six sponsors. If you get half a dozen of those advertisers then you are in a cash-flow- positive situation. However, much of that was contingent on Robin Leach's involvement. We were told that at the sales calls I went on with banks and some of the high-end car dealerships in town. But they were interested in Robin making personal appearances and maybe Robin being involved in their TV commercials. But with no Robin the value drops fast."
As Butcher worked out the financial end of the equation, Leach redoubled his efforts on recruiting talent, gaining access, and using his contacts to develop programming. Emmy-award-winning former CNN, ABC News and CBS News journalist Kathleen Sullivan agreed to provide expert news commentary for the fledgling station's business show. Al Bernstein a veteran of Showtime and ESPN, agreed to sign on to host a sports show. Also, Leach arranged for Vince Neil to file weekly "On The Road" reports from Motley Crue's reunion tour as part of 24/7, an entertainment show hosted by radio personality Steph McKenzie and produced by Christal.
On February 3, the celebrity- packed gala premiere of KA, the new Cirque show at MGM, took place and was covered by national print, radio, and television—from around the country. Christal wanted to do a huge special on it with behind-the-scenes access and red-carpet interviews for her 24/7 show with Steph McKenzie. However, with everyone from the New York Times to the local network affiliates making similar requests, the chances of a station that had not even launched (and, even after launch would only be available via UHF) getting credentialed seemed slight. But Channel 35 wound up being approved, and Steph McKenzie, along with Christal and the Vegas 35 camera crew were placed on the red carpet alongside reporters from Entertainment Tonight, People magazine and US.
"No question Channel 35, by far, would be the smallest media we credentialed," Dave Kirvin says. Kirvin was the publicist responsible for sifting through and approving media requests for access to KA that night. According to Kirvin, the reason he approved KVTE was simple: the credibility of Robin Leach. "Having Robin Leach attached to this was hugely significant for both personal and professional reasons. Robin has a great network of personal relationships in the casinos throughout Las Vegas. His show (Lifestyles of the Rich And Famous), Entertainment Tonight and the Food Network have all proven that he is one of the most significant television reporters of entertainment in the past 25 years. A network like that doesn't get launched without a professional like him." Kirvin, too, was in awe of Leach's dedication to Channel 35. "He makes working hard look like something everyone would want to do."
In fact, there was no story Leach considered too ambitious for the fledgling network. On February 17 he sent out e-mail to Christal (who was also responsible for producing the weekly financial show) with the subject line: "MGM Merger—We Must Own this story." A week later, KVTE got one of the only on- camera interviews with the reclusive Kirk Kerkorian, the principal shareholder of MGM.
Things were going so well, in fact, that the little indignities faced by a small start-up seemed nothing compared to the outsized accomplishments being made on a daily basis. Still, there were plenty of little indignities. Eleven days before launch, for example, the studio redesign was finally finished, with the new lighting grid installed, when a serious problem was discovered. If an upstairs tenant turned on a microwave at the same time KVTE's coffee machine was brewing (and in media companies someone always needs caffeine), the entire studio lighting system shut down.
Still, a week before launch Leach was confident enough of success to send e-mail to Drage and Butcher:
"I would like both Nathan and MaryAnn to please create a staff letter for the 3 of us to sign. It should contain real warm praise for a sterling job done by one and all —and overcoming tremendous odds and last minute setbacks crushing us right to the wall. (Warning—it will be, from tomorrow until 5 a.m. Tuesday, a round the clock no sleep effort) More importantly I'd like it to set the imprint of the way we must go from here in total commitment and professionalism without ego or rank as a 100% cohesive working team ... I can't tell you how proud I am of what Nick and Anissa have accomplished. Truly remarkable by all!!!
"Its totally unbelievable what has happened since the Jan 11 acquisition and subsequent shut down. That's less than 2 months ago—a remarkable seven-week journey No other TV station in the market could do this. We have brand new shows, brand new hosts and most important of all fantastic guests."
In requesting that the three of them (Drage, Butcher and Leach) sign the letter, it is clear from this note that even this close to launch, Leach has no sense that Merrick is part of the management team.
But by then Butcher was beginning to learn about the executive working out of a home office. "After I am hired, I am told there is an executive vice president that I have no knowledge of. I would describe Shenandoah Merrick as a caricature of a person. Nathan introduces her to me and says her job is mostly a social one."
Leach had promised Butcher that she would report only to the investors who included Leach and Drage. Then, according to Butcher, "All of the sudden, all of the work is done and no one has seen Shenandoah. On launch day she comes through the door with Nathan Drage. The station launches and then he lets us know how much control she is going to have."
Though no one else involved will speak on the record, according to Butcher things deteriorated rapidly: "It really started the day after launch. Merrick ultimately became goddess of Channel 35. Suddenly she was involved with business development, investor relations, public relations, and sales and marketing. And the kicker: programming ... And she was interfering with us getting work done. Unfortunately, Shenandoah was more important than the entire team at Vegas 35."
Drage denies—or sort of denies—that Merrick's role changed after launch: "It didn't change. She continues doing the job she was hired for. And like other employees in the company, other duties may be added and changes to 'title' might occur from time to time."
Drage also denies that anything involving Merrick's role in the company was done surreptitiously: "Do not be confused, this is in fact a privately held company, not a large public corporation. Consequently, many corporate activities and plans are developed which are kept private until the time is right to reveal them. The fact that some former employee(s) may not have known about a substantial amount of work that was going on does not mean it was not taking place."
Yet on paper, Merrick is the opposite of what Drage had been claiming all along was his goal—to use the experience and talent brought in by Leach to make Channel 35 a contender. Merrick's inexperience at the top seemed a contradiction I wanted to speak with Drage about. In our previous encounters, Drage had been happy to discuss his plans at length for the station and he was eager for me to talk to the people like Leach and Christal that were key to his plans.
But when it came to Merrick, Drage took questions in writing. Asked what in her background made Merrick experienced enough to be such an important person for Channel 35 to hire as an executive vice president, Drage noted that Merrick has experience as a show host on Channel 35. (Of course, Drage would have had access to La Penna's evaluation of Merrick's hosting skill.) Drage also compared Merrick to Victor Kiam, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ted Turner: all people who succeeded in areas where they technically did not have much experience. Drage concludes:
"In a personal nature, Shenandoah has a wonderful sense of humor, which is usually self deprecating and never demeaning to others. She greatly enjoys interacting with people and considers all people unique and interesting. People sense that of her. She is truly a 'people' person. This is one reason all the guests on her shows have had an enjoyable experience.
"You also should keep in mind KVTE is not some giant television station or network. It is a small company in hopes of growing into something much bigger. Part of that process requires that I meet the right people in this community. Shenandoah, a longtime resident of Vegas, has been active in various charitable organizations. As stated previously, she has been very helpful to the station in introducing us to the many people in this community important to our success. These are people who also see what this station can do for the community and how it can evolve to showcase Vegas to the world."
But Drage already had Robin Leach at that point to help him meet the "right people." And what people in the Las Vegas community could Merrick get meetings with who Leach could not? The most confusing point was why she was an executive vice president at all—an inexperienced person to oversee the people that Drage himself had brought in because of their experience. Drage did not directly address, nor did he explain to me in any way, what failings in Leach and Butcher he hoped to correct with Merrick's oversight of them. (Drage declined to respond to a request for further interviews.)
Still, according to Butcher, Drage insisted that she begin reporting to Merrick, and that she take Merrick along on sales calls. Leach refuses comment, but according to Butcher, increasingly, Merrick insisted on getting involved in Leach's programming decisions as well. For Leach, who called himself "Fearless Leader" and who had worked so hard to get to launch, this must have been unacceptable. According to Butcher, the strain on Leach was immediate and intense. Leach deeply resented Merrick's interference and found her opinions and skills worthless to the station. In short, Leach had no use for Merrick. According to those close to the situation, Drage refused to either remove her or offer Leach a satisfactory explanation or justification of her role at the station. By the time of the meeting to pitch Cox on including Channel 35 on cable, Drage and Leach were barely on speaking terms: all over Merrick. According to Butcher, Drage once asked Butcher to remove Leach's name from the PowerPoint presentation to Cox and put Merrick's in its place. Butcher says she refused. Drage told her he would not attend the meeting with Cox.
So, Butcher tried to put aside her own concerns about Merrick and play peacemaker between Leach and Drage.
According to Butcher, "Robin and I pretty much did it (the Cox presentation). Nathan gave us a couple paragraphs to put in which was fine, that was all we needed from him. But at that point Robin and Nathan were in such disagreement that Nathan didn't want to go and Robin didn't want him to go, and I was in the middle trying to broker them. Fifteen minutes before the 3 p.m. meeting I'm like,'Nathan, please go to the meeting. Robin says you guys will go in as a united front.' And he goes, 'I am not in a position to get there in time.' So he missed the single most important meeting we were ever going to have. So it was just Robin, Nick La Penna and I."
Still, Butcher felt the meeting went well: "It was a very warm but a very straightforward meeting about what we had to deliver to be on Cox. He (Steve Schorr) wanted the programming to be of Cox quality and he knew we could get it to where it needed to be. We did have a good meeting at Cox. Right now, Cox doesn't physically have room to drop in another station. However, I was certain that even within 90 days he would have been open to putting us on even a couple hours a week on a certain station. So the answer is absolutely yes, I think we could have gotten on Cox if we had just worked together and put the energy toward programming and not into inexperienced personnel."
That, however, was not what was taking place. And so an emergency dinner at the Venetian was planned to try to resolve their differences. According to Butcher, "On March 3, Nathan Drage, Robin Leach, Nick La Penna and myself had dinner at Postrio. And we pleaded with him (Drage) to get Shenandoah out of day-to-day business. She was not helping business. She was not facilitating it, but instead being very disruptive. We probably spent upwards of three and a half hours at that dinner and Nathan wouldn't give. At one point Robin got up and stepped away and Nick and I pleaded with Nathan. We asked him to take her out of the day-to-day. And he said, 'No.' And that is when they (Leach and Drage) came to their agreement that they would split up their partnership."
On the record, Drage will only say:
"The best way to address that is to say that we had differences in managerial vision. There is not a lot I can say right now as we are still in the process of going our separate ways. There was just a difference and it became irreconcilable. I wish we could have reconciled them. He has a lot of experience. He is a celebrity. And the experience and his celebrity status was something the project could benefit from, but ultimately we couldn't resolve our differences ... I wish him the best in all of his endeavors. But we will not be slowed down in what we do."
Leach has even less to offer: "There was a total disagreement of opinion about his selection of management."
As for Merrick, she ignored repeated requests for an interview until leaving an odd voice-mail for me on Wednesday, March 16 at 11:08 p.m.: "Bonjour, Richard. This is Shenandoah Merrick. And I would like to say, I love working at Vegas 35-KVTE. I wish Mary Ann Butcher and Robin Leach all the best in their endeavors and may they find much happiness. And thank you for calling, Richard. And ciao!"
Even stranger a few days later she inexplicably CC'd me an e-mail she sent to Mary Ann Butcher a few minutes before midnight on March 21:
I had lunch at Quizno's the other day, and thought of our fun and "yummy" girl's outing. Never got to officially say good bye ... I hope all is well with you and your husband.
A few days later Merrick agreed to be interviewed but provided a list of conditions to be met first including the demand that I submit my questions to her in writing. I e-mailed her back:
"My plan is to ask you about how you got involved in Ch. 35, the work you did leading up to launch and why you think the relationship between Robin and Ch. 35 ran into such trouble over your role at the station (or, if you think that is not the case) and what direction you hope to take the station in heading forward."
Merrick canceled the interview. I never heard from her again.
As for Drage, despite comparing Merrick to some of the brightest names in corporate America, he felt that it was unnecessary for me to talk to Merrick at all. When I told him I wanted to interview her (and station manager Trip Mitchell) about programming ideas and business plans for Channel 35, Drage responded: "No, no, no, these are questions for me, actually. And, in fact, I actually think you can accomplish all of your questions with me, because what I will be talking to you is what I would be discussing with them and then they would just be repeating what I say, anyway."
One hardly sees Ted Turner, Victor Kiam or The Arnold ever being a handpuppet for someone else's answers. But more importantly, wasn't Leach brought in precisely because Drage himself wasn't sure how to handle these issues successfully? And now the plan was for Merrick to take over implementing Drage's vision as a surrogate? No surprise, the team Robin Leach painstakingly assembled quickly crumbled after his departure.
Though he knew he wasn't going to get paid for his labors by that point, Nick La Penna stayed on at Channel 35 for another week to fulfill his promise to all of the hosts he had coached to get them through the start of their shows.
Mary Ann Butcher lasted just over a week after Leach's departure before resigning: In her resignation letter to Drage she complained: "Nathan, my resignation is squarely on your shoulders. Robin, Nick and I spent HOURS trying to help you see ... We truly wanted to build a station with content that served all of our local constituents. Instead, it seemed to me (again, my opinion) that this was a 'project' or 'mission' whereby you could indulge Ms. Merrick ... "
Butcher still thinks KVTE could have worked and is deeply disappointed at how things turned out. "First you have to have a station, then the network and then you are global. But you can't do it if you aren't professional. All you have to do is put on Channel 35. I have one TV in the house without cable and it is frightening and disappointing when I now watch 35—the lack of audio quality, the shadows from poor lighting, the frozen images on the screen. In my opinion, Nathan contradicted himself—and this is important—he said he just wanted a TV station with that small-town feel where you have fun and at the same time he said he intended to get on satellite and distribute the programming that way. Well, small-town feel is not what people are interested in when they hear Las Vegas. This is now a very cosmopolitan and sophisticated city that is culturally diverse. It is financially significant. And I don't know that Dish Network or Direct TV or Cox would be interested in what in my opinion is the low quality and inexperienced personnel. The interest was in the things that Robin brought to the table. Robin provided opportunity, direction and mentoring. Without Robin's name we were a low-power UHF station."
A day after Mary Ann Butcher resigned, Annisa Christal submitted her resignation, too. "Without Robin I didn't see the station going anywhere and there was no point in being there," she says.
Steph McKenzie, who had been a host at the station before Leach's arrival, also decided to leave after his departure: "I had a taste of real television and I learned so much from Robin Leach. I just didn't see any point in continuing like it was before without him."
As for Drage, he argues that KVTE is hardly dead, and that he is still very much on course to launch a Vegas network. He sees the past three months working with Leach as simply a learning experience:
"What I am doing—and I think you and I talked about this—is that previous people and groups and entities who had announced doing a Vegas network, there was a lot of hurrah that went on, and I saw the need to actually get in and start doing it. To go through the process, and that includes making mistakes, you know, making errors. And, hopefully as you go through that process the community—its viewers and organizations such as the cable company—can understand that that is a process that you have to go through. At the end of the day, I am still in the same process and that is just working through it. And I believe that there are no shortcuts. And I guess I can say that has been underscored for me. There are no shortcuts. It's about work. It's about building a step at a time. Not only in terms of your equipment, but in terms of your employees and your management. When you try to go too fast what you lose isn't made up by what you gain."
But for now Channel 35 remains a station that mostly goes unseen and the dream of a Vegas network appears at least as far away now for Drage as it was in January.
Leach, too, hasn't given up. Though he no longer has a station he still has a vision for a Vegas network. He released this statement to me after it was cleared by his lawyer: "Vegas is in my blood. Everybody here knows I am its biggest booster as the best city in the world. It's evident Vegas will figure greatly in my future television work—and as soon as possible."