|I’M KIND OF A BIG DEAL: Scott Sams is the new morning man at CBS Channel 11.
photography by Stephen Karlisch
Scott Sams is silent this morning. The people next to him yammer about last night’s episode of The Sopranos, but Sams, standing in front of the makeup lights of his booth a few minutes till air, in the awful hour before 5 am, keeps quiet as he applies foundation to his cheek and neck. He has aged a little, his hair grayer but still parted the same way, swept back and to the left. His silence is understandable. Today is the biggest day of the rest of Scott Sams’ life.
This morning marks his big comeback, the day he returns to anchor a newscast in Dallas. For nearly 20 years, Sams worked at the competition, ABC Channel 8. But in September 2004 the station fired him, ostensibly for sagging ratings on the morning show he anchored but perhaps just as much for the rumors and allegations that snuck out of the studio: that he became too comfortable with his position; that off-camera his ego was unbound and his relationship with coworkers bristly; that in a meeting he called a colleague a “Greek bitch.”
Post-Channel 8 was painful for Sams. No work, no prospects of work, a nightmare that stretched into months and then a year. Finances dwindling, the accoutrements of a better life sold one by one, depression. And then he finally got a job in March 2006. But in the lowliest of locales. Sherman, Texas. And a year spent there, anchoring four newscasts a day alongside reporters half his age, this job their first out of college. Now, back from TV market purgatory, Sams wants to prove he’s where he belongs.
The conversation in the dressing room shifts to Entourage, the show following The Sopranos, and Sams stops padding his face with makeup. Shannon Hori, his diminutive co-anchor, talks about having met Jeremy Piven, who plays the Hollywood agent Ari Gold and is Entourage’s wry comedian and vapid mercenary. She met him at a film festival in Aspen. A nice guy, she says, despite his reputation for being a jerk.
“People change,” Sams booms from the adjoining booth. “I used to be a jerk.”
It’s July 2004 and Sams and his wife Lisa live in a $1 million 5,400-square-foot faux-Hill Country mansion in Plano. Sams has his own home theater. He drives a $100,000 BMW 745 LI. He vacations in Bora Bora. Having switched from evening newscasts in 2002 to mornings, he is rumored to be the highest-paid am anchor in the market, with an ego to match, at a reported salary of $500,000. Just to read the news. Even he can’t believe it sometimes. Not that his status is a complete surprise. He was, after all, a television prodigy.
Scott Sams likes to say he literally grew up at a television station. His father produced television commercials in Knoxville, Tennessee, and his mother, when not modeling, played Miss Ruth on the Knoxville version of the syndicated television show Romper Room. Sams spent two to three nights a week in a studio.
His life changed at 12 when his younger sister was struck by lightning at a baseball game. She was in a coma for a year and in the hospital for two more and remained in a vegetative state until her death in 1989. Because of the care she required, Sams lived with friends of his parents until he was 15. Then his parents divorced. Had he not been saved at a Billy Graham crusade and subsequently involved himself with a Christian youth group, “I could have gone in a very different direction,” Sams says.
Broadcasting helped, too. At 15, Sams asked a local radio station if he could answer phones for disc jockeys. One Saturday a disc jockey called in sick, and Sams filled in from midnight to 6 am. He was soon working part time at a rock station. By 19 he had decided against college—Peter Jennings didn’t go; neither did Brian Williams, he is quick to add—and found work at a local television station as its weatherman. A few years later he was doing weather and sports and, since this was the early ’80s, introducing music videos on the weekends to compete against this burgeoning phenomenon called MTV.
In winter 1985, Sams asked Lisa Prude to marry him after dating her for two weeks. Prude laughed at him. He asked again shortly after Channel 8 contacted him in February 1985. The Dallas ABC affiliate was arguably the best local station in America. Sams had long wanted to work there, and when he joined the station in June, he said to himself, upon walking into the newsroom, “My gosh. I’ve made it.” He didn’t go without Prude. By December they were married.
From there his career took off. Good Morning Texas debuted in 1994 with Sams as co-host. In 1999 he moved to the evening newscast and made the best of Channel 8’s short-lived three-anchor format. In September 2002, with the station’s reputation waning and the ratings flatlining, Sams returned to Daybreak and Good Morning Texas as co-anchor to boost viewership.
But the ratings bump didn’t last. By 2004, Channel 8 more or less remained in third place behind channels 4 and 5, the Fox and NBC affiliates, respectively. Some at Channel 8 resented Sams and his high salary. Some resented his ego. Channel 8 reporters and anchors (not unlike most TV news personalities) view themselves as movie stars, one former Channel 8 employee says, and, as a rule, they hate to be outdone by their competition—but especially by their colleagues. “Everyone wants more reads and air time,” the former employee says. And the money you make is never just the money you make. It’s a statement about your value to the station and, if you believe the hype, your value to the community. This was Sams’ problem. He believed his own hype.
“Scott pissed people off,” the former employee says. Television critic Ed Bark, who worked at the Dallas Morning News during Sams’ Channel 8 tenure and now runs his own website, Unclebarky.com, says, “I still get e-mails from people in the industry that just hate him. I think some people kind of perceived him as a gasbag.” Sams admits to “tension” at the station, some of which he caused: he thought his seniority at Channel 8 shielded him from any ratings slip. “Pride goeth before the fall,” Sams says.
According to a story in the Dallas Observer, in early April 2004 a staff meeting was called. The Daybreak team was to watch tape of the competition and discuss ways to improve its show. What happened next is murky. What’s known for sure is that an argument broke out in which Sams called traffic reporter Alexa Conomos a “Greek bitch,” according to the Observer.
Conomos would not comment for this story. Because of subsequent litigation, Sams is limited in what he can say. But he does say that the fight was about “taking the Lord’s name in vain. And I asked the people not to say it and they said it anyway.” As for the infamous comment, Sams has “never” made an ethnic slur, he says. The former Channel 8 employee, who was not in the meeting but worked that shift, says, “The story was always misreported as a ‘Greek bitch.’ I remember Alexa coming out of the meeting and saying, ‘He called me a bitch! He called me a bitch!’ ” Sams was suspended for several days.
The mood on the set did not improve when he returned. The following month, during his sportscast, Dale Hansen mocked his co-worker. “Chicago’s Sammy Sosa is going on the 15-day disabled list,” Hansen said. “He sneezed the other day, hurt his back, and now he’s gonna miss two weeks. Sosa’s out two weeks because he sneezed. Scott Sams says he can understand that.”
By the time Sams was fired in September 2004, after nearly 20 years with Channel 8, he was not angry. He was relieved.
Mondays were the worst. Mondays were an admission of failure. On Mondays, Sams had to face the fact that this was another week in which he wasn’t going to work, another week in which he would stare at his computer and hope the phone would ring, another week in which he would grow more desperate for work and perhaps cry (again) to God when nothing came of it. “Okay, God. What do you want me to do?” he’d ask. “What do you want me to do?”
Not that he didn’t try. Sams sent out letters to all other stations in North Texas the day after he was fired. Nothing came of them. He talked to headhunters to no avail. He posted an ad on tvjobs.com. He thought his resume and God’s providence would lead him to a better place. “I won’t lie to you,” he says. “There were some very tough days.”
Money got tight. Shortly after his firing Sams filed a wrongful termination claim, alleging his age, race, gender, and religion led to his dismissal. But it would be years before he knew the suit’s outcome. In the meantime, bills piled up. The Samses put their house, their 5,400-square-foot dream house, on the market. The couple made other cutbacks. “Had to get rid of the big fancy cars,” Sams says. For a year they drove an SUV loaned to them by friends. On June 30, 2005, the Samses filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Around this time, Sams enrolled in a 12-week Bible study at his church (which he prefers not to name, since he says he received death threats in the past) to help him cope. Bruce White, Sams’ associate pastor, says he noticed Sams was very depressed over his firing.
Soon after, Sams says God taught him a lesson. It was October 2005, more than a year after he’d been fired, and Sams sat at the island countertop in his kitchen—the house still hadn’t sold—reading a chapter of Experiencing God, by Atlanta pastor Henry T. Blackaby. It was noon, the time he’d set aside every day to read it. “And it was like a light went on,” Sams says. He felt it deep inside him, this call to follow God. He fell to his knees and began crying. “I got it,” he said. “Lord, I’ve got it.”
A few months later, Sams received an e-mail from the station manager at the NBC affiliate in Sherman. The Sherman market, about 55 miles up U.S. Highway 75, is a small one: television market 161 out of 210. Dallas-Fort Worth is No. 6. Accepting the anchor position in Sherman was potentially career suicide. “I prayed hard about it,” Sams says. While considering the position, he dreamt one night he was teaching kids. He woke up the next morning and thought, Well, what would the Sherman job be but an opportunity to teach? He signed on March 31, 2006.
Sams anchored four newscasts a day, helped other reporters edit their packages, edit down their scripts, encouraged them to stick it out in a market that paid about $15,000 a year to new reporters. Sams was paid a fraction of what he once made in Dallas.
Slowly, life started to brighten for Sams. The house sold. On May 15, 2006, a bankruptcy court dismissed the Samses’ case. They rented a house in Plano and Sams drove his Ford F-150 55 miles to work every afternoon and 55 miles back. He filled up with gas three times a week. “But it was the most rewarding job I’ve ever had in my life,” he says.
In January 2007, an arbitrator awarded Sams $683,771 in his wrongful termination suit. Both Sams’ attorney and Channel 8 claimed victory, the latter saying the amount was less than 4 percent of what Sams had sought. Sams’ attorney says, “That 4 percent is a spin, and that’s putting it mildly.” Shortly after the judgment, CBS Channel 11 pursued Sams. But station GM Steve Mauldin had trouble reconciling the Sams he met with the image of the “jerk” who’d worked at Channel 8. “What I wanted to know was, Was this person I had heard about the real person, or was [the real person] the guy I’d talked to on the phone, the guy I’d had lunch with?” he says. Mauldin enlisted the help of Tracy Rowlett, his veteran broadcaster who used to work at Channel 8. Sams and Rowlett went to lunch at Ruggeri’s one day in February.
“He told me he had really walked through the valley,” Rowlett says. “There was a humility that I hadn’t seen in Scott before.” On April 2, Sams accepted Channel 11’s offer to co-anchor the morning show from 5 to 7. Television critic Bark, no fan of Sams’, says hiring him “was a good move. Because they needed someone known in this market.” Channel 11 is a distant fourth in the morning ratings. “In the morning,” Bark says, “of all the male anchors, he is clearly the brand name in Dallas, for better or worse.”
On his first day back on TV in Dallas, it’s been for the better, so far. He’s battling a cold but looks good in a double-breasted blue suit and pink tie that matches Shannon Hori’s suit. He does not trip over a word in the first 20 minutes. Still, he admits he is nervous. He went to bed last night at 7 but awoke at 9, 11, and 1:30. Even now, he fidgets with his wedding band between stories. When off-camera, he fans himself with his scripts.
There was a fire in Plano. And highs today will be near 80. When Sams says the Mavericks lost Game 1 of their playoff series to the Warriors, he delivers the news evenly, without the faux frustration that many newsreaders affect. In that same tone he says the struggle to secure Baghdad continues. Around 6, after repeating the morning’s stories twice, Sams introduces a new report about YouTube. But he looks at the wrong camera. “Sorry. I’m new here,” he says. But it doesn’t feel that way for long. Later that morning, after an interview with a national correspondent at the scene of the Virginia Tech massacre, Sams takes the station to commercial. He leans back in his chair, the frenetic pace of the show already more manageable, slip-ups behind him, nerves gone. He sees a monitor with a beautiful shot of a sunrise from the station’s helicopter.
He smiles. “Look at that shot we’re getting from CBS 11 Sky Cam!”
And there it is. A new day.