One less rose on KTLA's parade float

WHEN the Rose Parade starts Monday morning at 8, one familiar face won't be among the throngs lining Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. She'll be someplace else, someplace far away, 2,000 miles from Southern California, in fact, up north where it's freezing and people won't pluck roses again till springtime.

For the first time since the Carter administration, veteran broadcaster Stephanie Edwards will be MIA from the No. 1-rated local parade coverage on KTLA-TV, where a generation of viewers came to know her as Bob Eubanks' chipper co-host and, some joked, once-a-year on-screen wife. Thanks to a satellite hookup at a family member's house in her native Minnesota, the exiled Edwards will experience the station's 2 1/2 -hour tournament smorgasbord the same way more than 1 million Angelenos will: sitting down with nary a TV camera in sight.

"I'll watch the parade with my family, in my jammies, weeping softly into my hot cocoa," Edwards told me by phone this week.

She was kidding about the tears, of course.

Or maybe not.

To those new in town: A year ago, Edwards stood at the center of a storm over her peeled-back role at the parade. Station executives took heavy criticism from viewers outraged that Edwards, now 63, had after more than 25 years been cast out of the broadcast booth in favor of a much younger woman, Michaela Pereira, an anchor of KTLA's "Morning Show," who cozied up with former "The Newlywed Game" host Eubanks (who turns 69 next month) while Edwards was downgraded to a sideline role chatting with folks in the grandstands.

In the rain.

Hard rain, the kind that flummoxed the sailors in "A Perfect Storm."

The spectacle was too much for Edwards' loyal fans, who spied an ugly real-life parallel to "The First Wives Club," this time without the happy ending.

My colleague Patt Morrison complained in her column of another "icky, letchy, older man-younger woman anchor team."

"Shame on KTLA," scolded one Times reader. Wrote another: "In 2007, let's hope for sunshine and Stephanie back up where she belongs: in the TV booth."

Not gonna happen.

As LAObserved.com first reported last week, Edwards will sit this one out entirely. When I reached her Wednesday, she tried to be gracious about the outcome: "There was a mutual agreement between management and myself that it would be best for me not to appear in a sort of 'halfway' arrangement this year," she said.

"Halfway" is a nice way of putting it. According to Edwards, the station this year offered her only a role on the pre-parade show (the station's coverage kicks off at 6 a.m.) but wouldn't commit to anything during the main telecast, in the grandstands or anywhere else.

"I didn't have that much fun in the pre-parade; it isn't my strong suit," Edwards explained. And clearly, she's still wounded by what happened a year ago. While she insists she didn't mind working the bleachers, calling it "an adventure" that she would gladly have repeated, there ultimately wasn't much percentage in being a good sport: "I worked three times as hard for one-fifth the salary," she said. (Edwards declined to specify the amounts involved but claimed as co-host she earned "considerably less" than the $50,000 or so Eubanks receives.)

"There's nothing permanent in television," Edwards said.

Hard to argue with that. Edwards' fade-out from one of the top live events in the nation's No. 2 television market offers an instructive little morality tale on aging in the public eye, not to mention a peek behind the curtain as a onetime star and her cost-conscious bosses part ways.

KTLA's parade coverage isn't your typical serve-the-yokels fare. The station, which like The Times is owned by Tribune Co., devotes the entire day to the parade and makes it a fanfare event, with a live, commercial-free first run followed by several repeat telecasts for late-risers. There's no shortage of national attention -- this year, ABC, NBC, Univision, HGTV and Travel Channel will air coverage of the Rose Parade, with an estimated worldwide audience of 35 million -- but local viewers seem to prefer KTLA's saturation strategy.

Last year, an average of 1.9 million total viewers tuned in, according to Nielsen Media Research, enabling KTLA to crush rivals such as KNBC-TV (239,000) and KABC-TV (222,000).

"We approach the parade differently than anybody else does," Eubanks said. "We don't use it as a PR vehicle, we treat it as an event. We're prepared in a way no one else is."

Veteran producer Arthur Forrest, overseeing NBC's 90-minute nationwide telecast anchored by "Access Hollywood's" Nancy O'Dell and Billy Bush, admitted that KTLA's telecast is all but untouchable in its home stadium. The commercial-free airing "is something we can't do," he said. "There's no way to beat them there."

That prominence, though, may explain why local viewers take Edwards' fate so personally.

The daughter of pioneering TV producer and host Ralph Edwards ("Truth or Consequences," "This Is Your Life"), she realized her days at KTLA were numbered when Vinnie Malcolm, the station's general manager, sat her down at a business lunch during summer 2005.

"I don't want you to think I'm inviting you to lunch to fire you," she remembers Malcolm saying. "I'm taking you to lunch because I'm thinking of firing you."

Malcolm explained that he wanted one of KTLA's regular on-air personalities to do the parade. The station also needed to save money on the telecast, she recalls him saying.

Edwards wasn't happy with the pay cut the station ultimately proposed, but she gamely went along with the grandstand gig. She figured that Eubanks was surviving in the booth not just because of his name recognition but also because his contract, unlike hers, wasn't up. "I really do not think it was ageism in our case," she said.

After the telecast, though, Edwards' future at KTLA became as dark as the parade route had been. Malcolm called her back for another meeting, she said, where he sketched a graph that showed declining profits for the parade coverage. "He was also quite upset with the negative mail that had come in" concerning her demotion, she said.

The fans' devotion gratified her: "It was like hearing my eulogy without having to die," she quipped.

Malcolm, reached by phone Thursday, said that Edwards had a two-year deal that would have included working on Monday's parade. But she asked to be released when she couldn't agree with the station on her salary, he said.

As for the profit graph Edwards described him drawing, Malcolm said he didn't recall doing that. But he did say that KTLA spends nearly $1 million on telecasting the parade, not including the rights fees, and is looking for ways to do things more economically while also netting more exposure for the station's regular lineup. It was never anything personal against Edwards, he said.

"The question is: How do we make the parade grow?" he said.

As this year's parade approached, the new reality sunk in. Edwards was kissing goodbye to a high-profile event that had been a big part of more than half her adult life.

She cringed when a parking-lot attendant recently recognized her but couldn't place the name, asking, "Who did you used to be?" She did her Christmas shopping early and "spent a lot less," she said.

Asked about his former co-host, Eubanks, who'll return again with Pereira at his side, balked, saying, "It has nothing to do with me." After a moment's reflection, however, he called Edwards "a good friend" and added, "I'm very sorry she and KTLA could not come to some sort of agreement."

Things change. Edwards knows that. As she put it, "It's not an easy time to be in television." But that doesn't necessarily make acceptance easy.

"I miss the money, I miss the people," she said. "And I'll miss the parade."

The Channel Island column usually runs on Monday in Calendar. Scott Collins' television blog of the same name is at www.latimes.com /channelisland. Contact him at channelisland@latimes.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday December 30, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction Stephanie Edwards: The Channel Island column in Friday's Calendar section identified Stephanie Edwards as the daughter of Ralph Edwards, the game show host and producer. She is not related to him.
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