Meltdown at Fox

Several staffers move over to Channel 39's start-up effort

We're really, really trying not to break out the Survivor references, but the situation at Fox Channel 26 is coming close to leaving us no option.

Amid intense backbiting, crushed egos, shattered careers and rampant paranoia and suspicion, the once-stable station is undergoing an ugly, ugly purge.

Anchor Anna Davlantes has left. Longtime weatherman Robert Smith was demoted and then resigned, no doubt to huddle with the city's best age-discrimination lawyers. Lloyd Gite's "Bayou City Beat" was dropped from the morning program. Staffers are gobbling up offers from Channel 39, the Tribune Broadcasting station that is starting its own newscast later this year.

In all, perhaps 40 employees have left, been axed or been shoved out the door since the beginning of the year.

"None of the old-timers have seen anything like it," says one of those old-timers, who prefers anonymity. "I've never seen people as concerned as they are right now."

Says another: "Look, people don't leave established stations for start-ups unless there's a damn good reason."

Almost all of this carnage has occurred under the watch of the new vice president and general manager, the colorfully named D'Artagnan Bebel.

Bebel, 41, whose background is largely in sales, has been on the fast track to stardom at Fox. After stints in Los Angeles and Indianapolis, he spent less than two years as GM at Fox's Memphis affiliate before coming to Houston to replace Jerry Marcus, who retired after 21 years at the station.

Bebel told the Houston Chronicle when the move was announced in January, "I don't see the need for sweeping changes."

But sweeping changes have come, perhaps because of the disastrous results of the first major sweeps period under Bebel's watch. Ratings for Fox's 9 p.m. newscast were off 26 percent, although part of the blame was placed on the network's lame prime-time lineup.

With all the changes have come a disgruntled and worried staff. (The antsy mood wasn't helped by the depressing news that popular reporter Monique Nation has been diagnosed with stomach cancer.)

Things have gotten so bad that news director Denise Bishop called a Saturday staff meeting August 19 to try to calm the frazzled nerves.

Bebel didn't show up ("It was her meeting," he says), but the gathering was "a halfhearted attempt to rally the troops," according to a Fox employee.

Management blamed the folks at Channel 39 for stirring up rumors; they denied the stories going around the newsroom that Fox was not making any counteroffers to those who talked to 39. That hardly was consistent with what people who have made the jump have been telling their former colleagues; some of the former Fox staffers say that when they informed their superiors about an offer from 39, they were told to clean out their desks immediately and vacate Fox's plush Southwest Freeway studios.

"If in fact someone accepted an offer, then yeah, they're gone that day," Bebel says. "If they received an offer but haven't accepted, that's different."

He says the station is temporarily understaffed, but blames it on "raiding" by 39, which is headed by former 26 honcho Joe Nolan.

"But if people are saying it's gloom and doom here, that there's a crisis situation, that things are horrible and awful, well, it isn't," Bebel says. "We'll work through it."

Correction of the Week

In a stunning development that absolutely amazed well, us, at least, we take the honors in this prestigious category. The rumor mill was a little garbled last week when it spit out the story about a Chronicle staffer rebelling, at least temporarily, against the autocratic ways of Washington bureau chief John C. Henry during the Democratic convention. The rebel in question was reporter Greg McDonald, not columnist Cragg Hines. Mr. Henry, however, was correctly identified as a piss-ant petty tyrant.

Speaking of the Chron, as we usually are, we were listening to the radio on the way into work August 21 when one of those semi-ubiquitous ads for Houston's Leading Information Source came on. "In today's business section, read about how companies who aren't meeting analysts' earning projections are dealing with it," the announcer said, or words to that effect. "Only in the Chronicle."

So we turned later to that day's business section. And saw a lead story about how companies are dealing with not meeting analysts' projections.

"Only in the Chronicle"? The story was a wire-service piece by a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It had run in the Ohio paper a full month earlier.

It's Nice, But Expensive

It was a brief Houston Proud note at the end of the Chronicle's weekly Astros column August 18.

"Northern Visitors," read the headline. "The Astros hosted a group of 65 political and business leaders from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area during Wednesday's game at Enron Field," the item read. "The Minnesota group was in town to get a firsthand look at how the Astros' new ballpark has fared downtown."

The visitors, whose trip was paid for by the Minnesota Twins, were duly impressed with the stadium's architecture, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune story on the junket.

Obviously, though, the visiting northerners just didn't understand the compelling, Chronicle-boosted logic that such playpens needed to be gifts from the taxpayers to team owners.

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