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Tuned In: What's eating WTAE's newscast ratings?

Thursday, June 17, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Time to get a clue about WTAE's dismal newscast ratings during May sweeps.

Was it Judge Judy with her gavel on WPXI at 4 p.m.? Certainly the judge's trouncing of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on WTAE deflated the 5 p.m. news numbers.

Was it WPXI's more prolific contest that appeals to the foolhardy who think watching TV can bring them riches? No doubt, this was a factor.

Was it ABC's third-place prime-time schedule that doomed the 11 p.m. news ratings? It certainly didn't help.

But then there's this: On May 25, "NYPD Blue's" season finale gave WTAE's 11 p.m. news the best ratings lead-in of any network show, but the station lost almost seven ratings points in a 15-minute period and the newscast ended up mired in third place for the night.

What gives?

It's the type of viewers watching, according to WTAE general manager Jim Hefner. They're not traditional news viewers.

"The 'NYPD Blue' audience is not a news audience," Hefner said. "It's very difficult to hold onto them. 'PXI has the same problem on Thursday with 'ER.' "

That said, Hefner admitted disappointment with the ratings, saying, "We're not happy with the May book at all."

The mood in the WTAE newsroom is one of frustration according to insiders. There's definite discontentment with "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and its "Remembering Your Spirit" segment which airs near the end of "Oprah" and gets blamed for low news ratings at 5 p.m.

"Everyone groans when that comes on," said one reporter.

"You can almost hear the remote controls clicking away from Channel 4 at that point," said another.

"That has not been a favorite segment around the country," Hefner said. "I respect what she's trying to do, but it's hard to sit there and watch low ratings."

Hefner is optimistic about WTAE's ratings improving with the onset of ABC's fall schedule. He's especially bullish about the Thursday night lineup, which pits an edition of "20/20" against NBC's "ER." He said the newsmagazine lead-in should lead to better ratings for WTAE's 11 p.m. newscast because newsmagazine viewers are more likely to stick around for local news than drama viewers.

"Compatibility helps," he said. "We've been giving up on Thursday night, and this looks a bit more aggressive. We won't win, but it's better than what we've had."

Although heads frequently roll when ratings dip, vice president of news Tom Petner said there would be no immediate on-air anchor changes. Behind the scenes is another question. Word is spreading Petner may leave the station to join an online news service in New York. Petner did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.

Earlier in the week, Petner said WTAE made progress in the demographics, picking up a ratings point in men 25-54 at 5 p.m. and a point in women 25-54 at 11 p.m. compared to a year ago. At 6 p.m. the station held steady in men 25-54 compared to a year ago, but was down a point from the February ratings.

Whatever the future of WTAE's ratings, there's good news for frustrated viewers on the horizon: Hefner and Petner both said graphics that clog the lower third of the screen during newscasts will be toned down.

"When you sit down to a meal you want not only good food, you want the service to be good too," Petner said. "The audience wants it all right, not only the content, but everything buttoned up. You'd be surprised how much of what bothers the audience also bothers news executives."

Petner said a new set is under consideration, but he'd give no timetable for its debut or the premiere of those revamped graphics.

MORE DEMOS: Demographic ratings for the May sweeps period show news on WPXI, KDKA, WTAE and "Jerry Springer" on WCWB tied among persons 18-49 at 5 p.m. In the 25-54 demo, WPXI and KDKA tied for first, with WTAE in second place.

While household ratings give a station bragging rights, demographic ratings that show the age and gender of viewers are more important. Advertisers buy spots based on demographic data.

At 6 p.m., news on KDKA tied with "Friends" on WCWB for first place in the 18-49 age group. WPXI and WTAE news tied for second. In the 25-54 demo, KDKA dominated with WPXI and WTAE tied for second.

WPXI won at 11 p.m. among viewers age 18-49 and 25-54, with KDKA second and WTAE third in both demo groups.

CAROLINE CALLING: From deep within her secret bunker somewhere on the West Coast, former WPXI reporter Caroline Avedesian returned my phone call too late for the article in Tuesday's Post-Gazette.

However, much as she'd like to discuss her mysterious departure from Channel 11, she can't. Lawyers are involved.

"They've said contractually that I can't work," Avedesian said. "When a contract prevents you from doing what you love to do, you have to make the best of it."

She wouldn't say what she's doing or where she's doing it, but Avedesian said she "will be working soon, but I can't say when or where."

My guess is it won't be in Pittsburgh.

The plot thickens; stay tuned ...

BAD AFFILIATE, BAD! If it's not WPXI refusing to air the weekend "Today" show, it's WQED pre-empting PBS broadcasts. Actually, WQED does this more frequently than WPXI -- viewers just don't know it because PBS airs more specials than series.

This week's throwaway: "The Mythology of Star Wars with George Lucas and Bill Moyers." It airs nationally on PBS tomorrow night. At the moment WQED has no plans to air it.

I understand PBS works differently than other networks. It may not be possible to air every show produced by a member station. But Bill Moyers is a PBS brand name. Why deprive Pittsburgh viewers of his latest program, especially one with appeal to younger viewers I'd think WQED would want to reach?

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

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