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Tuned In: OK, John, here at last, is a look at 'Night Talk'

Thursday, June 24, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In this job, everybody wants something. Cable network publicists call daily to pitch shows. Sometimes even the producers of TV movies call, anxious for coverage.

Then there's John McIntire, host of PCNC's "Night Talk."

For about a year McIntire has begged -- both on the air and off -- for a column devoted to his show. To avoid further badgering when I'm on the next time and because "Night Talk" legitimately deserves the ink, this is the long-promised, much-delayed "Night Talk" column.

Though my tastes run toward dramatic programming and as far as possible away from prime-time news shows, "Night Talk" is a winner. As I've watched it more regularly in recent weeks -- thank goodness for summer reruns on the networks -- it's clear this is an engaging hour that can alternate between the serious (county executive candidates) and the light-hearted (interviews with actors).

McIntire may talk about local politics and issues, but his show isn't dull or dry. In fact, it's more entertaining than some network sitcoms.

During interviews he gets to the point: "Did you make any changes, fire anybody?" McIntire asked county executive candidate Jim Roddey about his campaign staff last week.

He's also surprisingly honest. Where some talk show hosts would try to cover up gaps in knowledge, McIntire doesn't pretend to be a know-it-all.

Sometimes the Friday free-for-all can be tough to watch when all three guests talk at the same time (two guests at that desk should probably be the maximum). Last Friday's was a particularly headache-inducing train wreck.

But even when that happens there's always the promise of McIntire's "It's His Commentary" segment that closes each show. He's fast-talking and funny as he gets on his soapbox.

"Breaking news: Bob Woodward's new book reveals all five past presidents have lied," McIntire said recently. "Woodward's next book will reveal the sun sets in the west."

On Monday's show a computer glitch froze McIntire in his tracks as he was about to pontificate on Ted Koppel's use of profanity on "Nightline." Viewers were left to wonder at first: Is this a gag or technical difficulties?

Another aspect of the show that works well is the toss to 10 p.m. news anchor David Johnson, which allows Johnson to show a less serious side. Last week McIntire announced Rue McClanahan would be a guest and asked Johnson if he remembered which of "The Golden Girls" she played.

"She was the slutty one, right?" Johnson asked.

Right you are, David.

Who says a show about politics and local issues can't be any fun? "Night Talk" defies such preconceived notions.

RESCHEDULED: Last week I complained WQED wasn't showing the Bill Moyers interview with "Star Wars" creator George Lucas. Now it's on the schedule to cap a night of sci-fi programming in late summer. The program will air at midnight Aug. 14. I was also informed PBS stations aren't "affiliates," they're "members." And I'm not a "TV critic," but a "television connoisseur." Whatever, the station is still affiliated with PBS.

KDKA NONSENSE: Last week we learned KDKA will move Stacy Smith to the noon news when Ray Tannehill retires next month. He'll be paired with Jennifer Antkowiak, and Ken Rice will take over at 11 p.m. with Patrice King Brown.

Smith and Brown will continue to anchor at 6 p.m., with Rice and Antkowiak still at 5 p.m., but I wonder if this is a precursor to Antkowiak bumping Brown out of the 11 p.m. slot further down the road.

How Smith feels about these changes is unknown (my guess is he's not thrilled), because KDKA general manager Gary Cozen said the station has a policy that forbids anchors from talking to the press.

Is it possible for a media organization to have such a stance without appearing utterly hypocritical? Of course not. It's also a new policy. As far as I know, KDKA's previous policy was that print reporters should contact management before calling on-air talent.

None of the other TV outlets in town say it's verboten to speak to their anchors (I had no problem getting reaction from WTAE's Scott Baker last year when he got moved off the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts). It's important for print reporters to have access to an anchor in situations like this so we can fairly and accurately present both sides of the story.

Even if Smith is displeased, anchors are smooth enough to know how to deal with newspaper reporters. Why does KDKA trust its people to report for TV but not to speak for themselves?

It's as if the station has adopted a new slogan: "At KDKA news, our reporters ask the tough questions ... they just aren't allowed to answer them."

SLAPSHOT: Sick of drama reruns? Check out UPN's "Power Play" (9 p.m. Mondays), a Canadian series about a New York sports agent who returns home to Canada to run a hockey team. Quirky (the team owner espouses the joys of the snack food Bugles) and dramatic (major family turmoil), "Power Play" has engaging characters that will keep viewers coming back for more.

And let's face it, given UPN's track record (i.e. "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer") it's better for them to borrow from Canada than come up with their own shows.

WHAT AN HONOR: The lowest-rated TV series of the 1998-1999 television season was ... "Reunited," the short-lived UPN sitcom set in Pittsburgh. It ranked No. 158 out of 158 regularly-scheduled series on the six broadcast networks. "Reunited" attracted an average 1.4 million viewers each week. Shows on the Big Three networks usually need around 10 million viewers per week to stave off cancellation.

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

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