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Tuned In: Is 'Homicide' headed for surgery or the morgue?

Thursday, April 15, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Will NBC kill "Homicide"? It's a question the show's die-hard fans are asking, just as they have almost every season the acclaimed, but low-rated, cop drama has been on the air. After last Friday there were new questions: If NBC does renew the show, what will they do to it?

In on-air promos, the network solicited viewers to watch last week's episode and then go to a Web site and respond to a survey about "Homicide." An NBC publicist said the survey had nothing to do with a decision about the show's fate, but the questions appeared to be seeking input on the creative direction of the series.

"Please indicate whether or not you feel the following words accurately describe Al Giardello, the Lieutenant in charge of the precinct," the survey asked. Choices included "predictable, believable, funny, friendly and likable."

Another question asked whether viewers cared about "what happens between Det. Falsone and his girlfriend, Laura Ballard" and whether "the show jumped around too much."

Additional questions sought to find out what time slot the show should air in and whether people would watch it if it aired opposite specific competing programs.

Executive producer Tom Fontana told the Philadelphia Daily News he was unaware of the survey until Monday, but he knew NBC wanted changes, some of which he's unprepared to make.

Fontana said he did have plans to shake up the show a bit by assigning homicide detectives to specific neighborhoods (based on a real program in the Baltimore police department), but his changes would only go so far.

"I'm not going to change the show drastically just to get renewed," Fontana told the Daily News.

That's fine by me. Much as I admired "Homicide" during its first five seasons, the show's quality has declined. It's not a bad show by any means, but it's no longer superior. Some of this is due to the departure of Andre Braugher at the end of last season. His character, Frank Pembleton, had become the heart of the ensemble, and none of the new characters has been as intense or interesting.

More importantly, the show is simply getting long in the tooth. It happens with every series: After a while the things that made it unique become common, the writing suffers and coming up with intriguing new plots proves difficult.

"Homicide" has been on the air since 1993, and it's been a creative and critical success. Better to go out now than to slowly descend into obsolescence.

ANNIVERSARY: In September, WTAE celebrated its 40th anniversary, and later this year KDKA will ring in its 50th year on the air, but today Cornerstone TeleVision's WPCB gives thanks for its 20 years of broadcasting.

Not bad for a not-for-profit Christian broadcaster begun by people with scant knowledge of the TV business. Even if you don't cotton to the station's programming, which runs the gamut from mainline Protestant to charismatic, its perseverance is admirable.

President Oleen Eagle, who has been with WPCB since before it went on the air, said 85 percent of the station's budget comes from donors. Unlike public broadcaster WQED, which receives government and corporate grants, WPCB gets no government or corporate funding.

"God has been very faithful to us," she said. "We are not in debt, and I can't say enough about our donors. This is a ministry first and not a business. The Lord gave us the mandate to broadcast alternative programming to this region."

If and when the FCC approves the deal that would have WPCB move to Channel 16 and Pax TV take over Channel 40, WPCB will roughly split half of the proceeds from the $35 million sale of WQEX.

Already WPCB has erected a new tower capable of holding both its current analog antenna and its future digital antenna. The station doesn't have to broadcast in digital until 2003.

Founders Russ and Norma Bixler are still involved with the station, and Russ' history of WPCB, "Faith Works," was recently published.

When WPCB -- the call letters stand for Western Pennsylvania Christian Broadcasting -- went on the air April 15, 1979, Eagle said she and the Bixlers had no idea whether anyone would tune in.

"We went on the air with fear and trepidation," she said. "Would anyone be out there?"

They asked viewers to call in so they'd know people were watching.

"And the phones started to ring," Eagle said. "That was the most exciting thing."

Since then, the company added a second station in Altoona and WPCB is carried on Echostar's The Dish Network satellite service in a Christian stations package.

To celebrate, WPCB will air the "best of" its 13 original programs today from 5 to 11 p.m. A "20th Anniversary Celebration" will air live 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday. At 8 p.m. Monday the station will air "Miracle Night" and welcome Richard Roberts, son of Oral Roberts and president of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla.

UGH: Sometimes you hear things on a newscast that sound so bizzaro, so ridiculous, they sound more like an over-the-top newscast parody. Such was my feeling while watching WPGH's "Ten O'Clock News" Monday night.

Anchor Sheila Hyland introduced a story with the words: "Police said they had no choice but to shoot the dog...."

I'm sure whoever wrote that didn't intend to get a laugh, but that was my reaction. No, I'm not an animal-hating sadist. Just read that line out loud. Doesn't it sound like a spoof of breathless news reports? No wonder TV news has become such an easy target for ridicule in sitcoms and movies.

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

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