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Tuned In: Sweeps month has share of winners and clunkers

Thursday, May 20, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's getting more difficult to take local TV news seriously. How can you when you know what the newscasts say can't always be trusted?

I'm sure that realization comes as no great shock to many, but my reaction to two newscast teases really brought it home.

On KDKA: "Are pesticides bad for your health? Find out tonight at 11."

My reaction: DUH! Why would I think otherwise? How is this news? Click.

On WPXI: "Local students are encouraged to drive drunk."

My reaction: Yeah, right. This must be a trick. Kids aren't really driving drunk, it's just a lame attempt to pique interest and keep me watching. Click.

True, these are just promos that don't tell the whole story, but how many people separate a newscast promotion from the newscast itself? It all comes from the same entity, so I imagine viewers fed up with these misrepresentations of upcoming stories either tune out completely or don't take such pronouncements seriously.

That's sad. News is often serious, but business pressures now force stations to compete in a way that too often makes them laughingstocks.

But all is not lost. Even during this sweeps month there have been some worthwhile reports. Skeptic that I am, I feared the worst when I heard WPXI's Dr. Mike Rosen was visiting Albania.

Would the station have spent the money to send him if it were not sweeps month? Will we get too many scenes of Dr. Mike "in action"?

I'll never know the answer to the former, but Rosen showed restraint on the latter.

Aside from an introductory piece in which the good doctor seemed obsessed with the "stinky" smell of the refugee camps, "Mission of Mercy" turned out quite well. Last Thursday's first segment on local relief workers in Albania was especially relevant and nicely photographed by Tim Holoman. Rosen's piece allowed the relief workers to tell the story in their own words, and Rosen did a good job explaining and giving examples of the impediments to getting relief where it's needed most.

Reports on local charter buses in the wake of a New Orleans crash could have been scare-fests, but WPXI's Stacia Erdos and KDKA's Wayne Van Dine both did reports that actually eased viewers' fears.

Too often TV and print media ignore religion, so it was refreshing to see Mike Clark's report on WTAE about a priest who served in Pittsburgh in the late 1800s who is being considered for sainthood.

But for every successful story, there are flops.

The biggest time-waster in May sweeps had to be Wendy Bell's report on WTAE about clothes that shrink and fade in the wash. The results of her tests on different brands: "I guess it's just kind of a crapshoot, who knows?"

Uh, if you do a consumer report, isn't the general idea to give viewers solutions or at least useful information?

"If you find anything out, please call me, I'd love to know!" Bell said.

In this case, I guess not.

SPELLING COUNTS: Everyone makes spelling mistakes. I misspelled Jeannette in these pages a few months ago, but on TV it seems to happen too frequently. Sometimes I'm sure they're just typos, but after a while these mistakes get annoying.

I see such fumbles most often on WTAE, but this week WPGH had the most glaring oversight, running a graphic during their election coverage that read: "Choices '99: A Decision for the Millenium."

If I've learned anything from covering TV in recent years, it's how to spell the title of the Fox show "Millennium." You'd think someone working at a Fox station would get that too.

TALK BACK: Unhappy with any of the local TV stations? Now is the time to make your voice heard. The licenses of Pennsylvania TV stations are up for renewal.

Before July 1, send your comments to: FCC, Mass Media Bureau, 445 12th St. SW, Washington, DC 20554.

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

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