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Rowlett drops anchor -- at Shale.TV (updated)

Tracy Rowlett after his last 10 p.m. newscast in March 2007. He's flanked by anchor Doug Dunbar and wife, Jill. Photo: Ed Bark

In a stunning and abrupt move, CBS11 anchor Tracy Rowlett has decided to opt out of an existing contract and become anchor and managing editor of the new Shale.TV, an online video channel scheduled to be launched this fall by Chesapeake Energy Corporation.

Shale.TV will be a vehicle to discuss production of natural gas in the Barnett Shale and other natural gas shale throughout the country, Chesapeake said in a statement. Viewers of conventional broadcast TV already have been bombarded with commercials using actor Tommy Lee Jones to tout the benefits of the Barnett Shale.

Rowlett, who signed a two-year contract extension with CBS11 in November of last year, said in a telephone interview that Chesapeake first approached him about a month ago.

Maintaining his journalistic integrity in the new venture is the overriding concern, he said.

"I guess the best way to put it is the proof will be in the pudding," Rowlett said. "If people will just give us an opportunity, they'll see that what we'll be doing is good, objective reporting. Chesapeake is just the sponsor, and there's nothing truly different about having a sponsor in news programming. I really won't be answering to Chesapeake. They have already said we'll have full editorial control."

Rowlett said that Shale.TV will be "all things shale. And we probably haven't had a more important economic engine than the Barnett Shale in this area since cattle. We're going to do stories that will cover the gamut, and we will invite negative opinions. We'll have a full and frank discussion. I just want people to see what we're doing before they judge us."

CBS11 president and general manager Steve Mauldin "couldn't have been kinder and more gracious" in letting him out of his contract, Rowlett said. "And if this somehow doesn't work out, he said I'd be welcome to come back."

After Chesapeake's announcement, CBS11 said it will air a Rowlett "retrospective" Friday during his final appearance at the station as co-anchor of the 5 p.m. newscast. It will be repeated on that day's 6 and 10 p.m. newscast, the station said.

"Tracy is a consummate professional and a good friend," CBS11 president and general manager Steve Mauldin said in a statement. "We will miss working with him, but we wish him all the best as he embarks on this new chapter of his life and career."

Rowlett joined CBS11 as the station's principal anchor in April 1999 after a quarter-century as a star anchor at WFAA8. He anchored CBS11's 10 p.m. newscasts until March of 2007, when Doug Dunbar succeeded him.

Rowlett had planned to retire from the station in July of last year, but instead signed a two-year extension last November.

"This is an exciting time at CBS11," he said at the time. "And I'm looking forward to being here when the station emerges as number one in the market."

That never happened, although the station now ranks No. 2 at 10 p.m. in the total household rankings after overtaking NBC5 in the May "sweeps" ratings period.

Chesapeake also announced the hiring of D-FW television news veteran John Sparks as senior producer of Shale.TV. Sparks worked at CBS11 until a recent corporate-mandated downsizing dealt him out.

Also joining Shale.TV as executive editor is Olive Talley, a former reporter for The Dallas Morning News who also has been a producer on NBC's Dateline and ABC's PrimeTime Live. She was instrumental in urging Rowlett to come aboard.

"I think we're creating something that is new and cutting edge," she said in a telephone interview Thursday. "There's plenty of controversy and plenty of depth to be talked about . . . I don't think there's anything out there that's going to be like this. And frankly, we're still creating it."

Talley said that Slate.TV might put on as much as three hours of new programming per night, with viewer call-ins included.

"This is not a corporate promotion or public relations initiative," said Julie H. Wilson, vice president of corporate development for Chesapeake. "We have heard repeatedly and consistently from residents, critics, supporters . . . about the lack of consumer-friendly educational information available to the public about issues and opportunities related to natural gas drilling, production and pipelines, particularly as they relate to an urban environment."