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Tuned In: News helicopters fly mainly to lift image

Thursday, February 25, 1999

By Rob Owen. Post- Gazette TV Editor

Growing up as a kid obsessed with TV news in Denver, I remember how excited I was to see Copter 4, the news helicopter that flew for then-NBC affiliate KOA-TV (now CBS's KCNC).


The station gave away snap-together Copter 4 models at its booth at the annual rodeo (complete with NewsCenter 4 decals!), and there was an extensive on-air campaign for the helicopter and its pilot.

Even as a kid I remember having some concerns, only because Denver news helicopters crashed at an alarmingly frequent rate, but to me Copter 4 was different. It was flown for the best station in town by pilot/reporter Karen Key. Nothing was cooler than a beautiful blond woman flying a helicopter.

I remember changing the lyrics of an Air Force recruiting commercial: "Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force, except for Karen Key in Copter 4!"

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(Embarrassing, I know, but cut me some slack, I was only 10.)

My devotion to news helicopters changed after the night Key took off in Copter 4, flew into a snowstorm, crashed and impaled herself on the machine's control stick. An aviation mechanic also was killed. The cause of the accident was determined to be alcohol- and weather-related.

After that I saw news choppers more clearly for what they are: marketing gimmicks with limited news-gathering capabilities. Station managers like to call them tools, and to a degree they are.

Helicopters can provide useful video in covering some stories that couldn't be covered as effectively from the ground. But when a copter flies all morning and afternoon, they're mostly toys providing eye candy shots from above. TV is a visual medium, but showing the same daily traffic tie-ups isn't that interesting.

WPXI's Chopper 11 has flown for years, but in a move that smacks of "keeping up with the Joneses," WTAE-TV inaugurated a suped-up flying machine with improved cameras last week. (KDKA's Jet Ranger 2 seems to fly less frequently - like only when a story calls for it.)

A Sky 4 chopper has had a presence on the station in the past, but the new helicopter has a more prominent role in the morning and evening newscasts. Vice president of news Tom Petner denied the change in copters was due to competitive pressures.

"We were happy with what we had, but we saw this as an opportunity," Petner said. "It's a different tool we can call upon for coverage."

Petner said the station has a deal with Metro Networks, which provides traffic reports for many area radio stations. WTAE has exclusive television use of the new chopper (Metro Networks previously used a plane), which bears Channel 4 logos.

Eric Seiter, a Metro Networks reporter, will report for Channel 4 and continue to file reports for radio stations from the whirlybird.

WHO'S ON FIRST: Folks inside WTAE said their station aired spots for a sweeps special on police chases beginning last Sunday with the report scheduled to air Friday. WPXI had a report on the same subject Wednesday. Coincidence or rip-off?

Better yet, who cares? Besides local station executives.

WPXI news director Jennifer Rigby denied her station saw the WTAE promo and rushed its own story on the air.

"It's an obvious story to do," Rigby said.

Meanwhile, KDKA officials claim WTAE's report this month on charities that hire telemarketers was a copy of the same story Channel 2 did during November sweeps.

To bring it full circle, KDKA consumer reporter Yvonne Zanos did a story on those 10-10 long distance services a week after WPXI's Becky Thompson did the same story.

Bottom line: New ideas are few and far between and I assume most sweeps features aren't original. It's best to simply judge each story on its own merits.

EXCLUSIVE: That lead-in is a joke, of course, but our dearly beloved local stations continue to traffic in this hype.

Last week WTAE claimed its report on George Clooney leaving "ER" was an "exclusive," even though reporter Liz Miles didn't do any of the interviews for the piece. The report featured recycled sound bites from previous interviews and movie junkets.

Oh, I suppose they can claim their particular package was exclusive to this television market, but that's not what they said. Labeling this story "exclusive" was misleading at best and an outright lie at worst.

It's also interesting that an ABC affiliate reported on the star of an NBC show leaving. You could applaud WTAE for covering something on another network, but I'm not that naive. The only reason WTAE did the Clooney story was so they could promote it all night and hope viewers would switch to WTAE after "ER."

As the kid in that old Connect Four commercial said, "Pretty sneaky, sis."

Not to be outdone, WPXI had its own report on Pittsburgh's worst disasters, and the promotions for it heavily featured snow scenes. What a perfect complement to ABC's "Storm of the Century."

GOLD STARS: WPXI's Andy Gastmeyer had an interesting story on three high-tech companies on Friday's newscast. Business stories are rare on local news; it would be nice to see more of them.

Channel 11's Stacia Erdos had a well-edited story on the history of the county jail Friday. It wasn't an in-depth report, but she allowed the deputy warden to tell the story in his own words.

And WTAE executives deserve kudos for giving Shawn Yancy the weekend evening and late news co-anchor gig. Yancy has a personable, genuine on-air presence, something lacking in too many of our local anchors.

LAZY, CLICHED TRANSITION: On Friday's 11 p.m. newscast, WTAE's Jim Parsons introduced his story on police chases by saying, "What we found will trouble you, Sally and Mike."

So Sally Wiggin and Mike Clark, were you troubled? Do you like being told how to feel? It's bad enough when reporters insult the intelligence of TV viewers with the tired "you might be surprised" phrase, but for a reporter to insult his co-workers on the air is pathetic.

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

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