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Does the Chiquita voice mail incident put a chill on investigative journalism? Weigh in on the journalistic rights and integrity in the Media area of Table Talk

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Under the Covers
By James Poniewozik
Brown and out in New York

Buzzing about the buzz machine
By Susan Lehman
Colleagues offer kisses and poison darts for the departing Tina Brown

Rotten banana
By Bruce Shapiro
While the media race to condemn the Cincinnati Enquirer reporter who hacked into Chiquita's voice mail, they're forgetting who the real villain is

Why the Time/CNN nerve-gas debacle was inevitable
By Ted Gup
A former Time reporter argues that until the newsweekly becomes more concerned with getting the story right than making a buzz, its credibility will never return

Male writers vs. female writers: Beyond the preconceptions
By Joanna Scott
An acclaimed novelist argues that the most interesting women writers can't be compared to men -- because they defy all categories

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With his new CityVision, Barry Diller is gambling that a city can be a star.
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BY ROBIN DOUGHERTY | It's a quiet evening on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road pedestrian mall. Just one block east of Michael Caine's South Beach Brasserie and a block west of the restaurant where Cuban singing sensation Albita performs, a small crowd gathers in front of a glass storefront.

Inside, under bright TV lights, a woman sits on a couch in front of a mock-up of a basketball court. A video camera captures the studio audience in front of her. Tourists may be mystified, but denizens of South Beach know it's all part of CityVision, TV mogul Barry Diller's latest project to revolutionize TV. Or at least the future of UHF.

The idea, says Diller, is to make South Beach, Miami's hip modeling and music industry center, into a living, 24-hour cable television phenom using only objects from your own broadcast empire. Oh, not to mention the assets of your own funky neighborhood.

Until recently, the Lincoln Road windows sported a mural that expressed the fledgling project's motto: "The City Is Our Studio." The studio for WAMI ("We Are Miami"), that is -- the station to which Diller has already committed $35 million.

WAMI, which up until now had been the South Florida site of Diller's Home Shopping Network, launched June 8 with six hours of locally produced programming. How local? City politicians and bookstore owners now join models and restaurant owners for a round-table "Politically Incorrect"-type show. Hunter Reno, a Miami model and niece of the attorney general, has signed on to host "Ocean Drive," a local scene magazine show.

For the past year, Diller honchos have been saying that the CityVision project would be like nothing we've seen before. Beneath the hype, however, there is a game plan. Adam Ware, executive vice president of Diller-owned USA Broadcasting, explains, "The only local TV that exists today is news, sports and cable access. [WAMI] doesn't fit into any of those three categories. It has a feel that comes from the street."

Not to mention the living room. For those who can't get enough of their loved ones on the tube, there's "Barcode," an "American Bandstand"-type dance show that puts local booties in front of the camera each weekday at 5:30. And midday, South Floridians can watch "Forgive or Forget," an Oprah-inspired show in which relationships are resolved on air.

Indeed, WAMI's programming consists of everything from local traffic updates and a daily newscast to -- later this year -- regular-season Miami Heat basketball games. South Florida TV viewers can now watch "City Desk," in which video cameras follow Miami Herald reporters on deadline. Herald crime-beat legend Edna Buchanan gets her own show later this summer.

If you think this sounds like a formula for an expensive cable-access channel, you'd be partially right. The station's production values are all over the map -- from the crude graphics of early-morning traffic grids to "The Magic Hour," Magic Johnson's syndicated late-night talk show, which is one of the few bits of store-bought programming. ("Politically Incorrect," which the local ABC affiliate had relinquished, is another.)

Tune in at the wrong moment and you'll land in cable-access hell. WAMI honchos have already had to substitute "Charlie's Angels" reruns for a program that wasn't ready to launch. But tune in during the afternoon, when "WAMI on Miami," a lively three-hour block that intersperses bought Fox Kids programming with chatter from charismatic teen hosts, and you get a glimmer of what WAMI could be.

Still, one little station in South Beach is just the beginning. If the Miami project works out, Diller plans to launch as many as 17 other CityVisions around the country.

And there's nothing casual about the spot that Diller has plopped himself down in. The storefront itself -- the ground-level suite of the Sony Building, which already houses MTV Latino, the Box and the Cisneros Group, a formidable TV empire broadcasting to Latin America -- is South Beach's answer to New York's legendary Brill Building.

What's more, it's only a short drive from the former WHYS-Channel 69, the Home Shopping Network, without which there would be no CityVision. With its conversion to WAMI, this station -- just one in Diller's 10-market kingdom, the eighth-largest broadcast group in the country -- instantly became a prototype for a new kind of local TV.

Why here? USA's Ware says the reason that Miami was chosen as ground zero is that "it's one of the most interesting cities in the U.S. -- one of the fastest emerging metropolises. There's a great diversity of cultures that gets translated into music, fashion and restaurants, and yet the TV stations don't really reflect it."

Miami is probably also the only city where people with little or no news experience have the balls to put on a newscast. Diller hired his editor in chief, 33-year-old Matti Leshem, away from his own Los Angeles video and interactive media company, rather than going with someone from a traditional news background. And insiders say that the station's original news director privately expressed his frustration with his staff's inexperience before the launch began.

Ware, however, describes the reporting as being like "the New York Post [of local newscasts]. It's not the news. It's what people talk about as the news." During the first week, stories included an item about a city commissioner under federal indictment whose bond had been revoked that day, and another about one of the original Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz, who was recuperating in a South Florida hospital.

Early ratings have been low, of course, but the theatrical draw of situating a studio on Lincoln Road -- where passersby not only take in the studio's activities as one more piece of the South Beach circus atmosphere but also become part of the scenery for those of us watching at home -- is obvious. Still, no media watcher on the planet would care about this venture if Diller weren't the man who started Fox network with one night of programming a week.

Those who have shows in the works -- from local drag queens to Xavier "Mayor Loco" Suarez, the recently deposed politician whose antics already made national news -- are intrigued. As one Lincoln Road denizen put it, "Everyone in South Beach wants their own TV show."
SALON | July 13, 1998

Robin Dougherty is a regular contributor to Salon.

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