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Tuned In: TV news sweeps going light on sensationalism

Thursday, February 11, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post- Gazette TV Editor

So far the local TV news sweeps ... aren't that bad. Yeah, it's a shock to me, too, but I haven't caught any station going overboard in scare tactic reporting and promotion that makes my skin crawl.

Rob Owen 

The best of the bunch has been WTAE's seven-minute report on charities that lose thousands of dollars in contributions by using telemarketers. Reporter Jim Parsons covered the issue thoroughly, interviewing a bevy of experts, obtaining scripts from a local telemarketer and explaining why charities continue to use this method of fund-raising.

A consumer follow-up by Wendy Bell didn't give enough detail about how to know which charities don't get most of the money you donate, but her report did offer tips on how to question telemarketers that solicit on behalf of charities.

Overall WTAE's report was substantive and substantial. If only viewers could get this sort of reporting during non-sweeps months. But stations are more motivated to increase their ratings when they count toward setting advertising rates.

But sweeps features don't have to be in-depth reports. Fluff never killed anyone, and sometimes can even benefit viewers.

That's my take on WPXI's "Commuter Shortcuts" series that finds Jodine Costanzo and another poor soul up at 8 a.m. to see whether the direct route or a "shortcut" into Downtown is quicker. These reports have been straightforward and helpful, especially for new-to-town viewers like myself.

My one quibble: I wish they tried the same routes an hour earlier to see if the results were the same.

In the useless fluff department, a Channel 11 consumer story by Becky Thompson on "Birthday Bargains" told me nothing new; however her follow-up report on a phone scam was thorough and informative.

Dr. Mike Rosen's report on a violinist suffering from epilepsy was an OK human interest piece, but I was left with some basic questions: Where was she from? How do doctors decide whether or not to operate on epilepsy patients?

I have no such complaints about a report on "Lost Treasures" by KDKA consumer reporter Yvonne Zanos; however, the station used the information she obtained to entice viewers to watch in the same way other stations use contests - and this from the anti-contest station!

Zanos reported on the Pennsylvania Treasurer's Department of Unclaimed Property, and KDKA flashed up names of area residents with money waiting for them. Sure, it's a public service for a few lucky folks, but by teasing viewers to stay tuned through multiple newscasts to see if their name pops up, KDKA was able to keep viewers hooked with a chance to gain financially, not unlike rival stations' contests. The difference: This only lasted one day and KDKA is not doling out the cash.

CEASE AND DESIST ORDER: So far this sweeps period several reporters have told viewers, "You might be surprised about what we learned."

Please stop.

Don't tell us how to feel. We can figure it out for ourselves. Giving us a cue to act surprised is no different from a sitcom laugh track that cues us to laugh.

Another phrase to beware of: "exclusive" (a.k.a. "only on"). Sometimes it's true, sometimes it's not. Whatever the reality, it's unnecessary hype.

RATINGS AND RENEWALS: Monday's episode of "7th Heaven," featuring the birth of the Camden twins (both boys), gave The WB its highest ratings ever; and for the first time the fledgling network had more viewers - 12.5 million - than ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox.

Fox has renewed "Beverly Hills, 90210" for a 10th season, and UPN has given the go-ahead for a second season of "Dilbert."

A BAD CAMPAIGN: Trying to save "The Nanny" from cancellation is a little like trying to prolong the life of a suffering family pet. Sometimes euthanasia is required.

In the case of "The Nanny," the show should have gotten the "Old Yeller" treatment years ago, but only now have star Fran Drescher and CBS brass mutually decided to call it quits. And yet...

A group calling itself "The Oys in the Hood Project" (http://www.angelfire.com/mi/LaurenLane/LLOysInHood.html) seeks to save the show from self-cancellation by encouraging viewers to write to CBS.

Normally I'm supportive of save-our-shows campaigns. Even if it's not a show I'm wild about, I can understand a viewer's devotion. But "The Nanny"?

According to the Web site: "We want more "The Nanny" so Fran can have her child (or children!) and we can see them interact with the new family, and Niles & C.C. could finally get closer, but without rushing it. Not to mention Brighton getting a girlfriend, Grace's complicated teen-age years, Maggie and Michael's relationship, and Yetta's marriage, that can yet provide a lot of fun. This show still has SO much life left in it, we just can't have it be wasted away!"

This is where I have to draw the line.

"The Nanny" was a cute show in the beginning. I appreciated its animated opening credits, a throwback to "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Bewitched." But "The Nanny" has been on the air six years. Even a quality series has a hard time coming up with four or five years of solid stories.

And "The Nanny" isn't a quality series.

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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