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Networks should leave 24-hour news coverage to CNN

Monday, July 19, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- First O.J. Simpson, then Princess Diana, then the presidential impeachment, now J.F.K. Jr. When a BIG story breaks, television networks love to stick with it even when there's no reason to do so.


Saturday the broadcast and cable news networks went wall-to-wall with coverage of the missing plane and its pilot, once named "the sexiest man alive" by People magazine.

It's another in a litany of tragedies faced by the Kennedy family, but there was no need for hour after hour of coverage on the broadcast networks. When there's news, report it. When there isn't, go back to regular programming and let the cable news networks obsess over it.

Although news events like this are bound to bring CNN higher-than-normal ratings, it's not a story CNN president Richard Kaplan embraces.

"I hate this, I hate this," he said while watching CNN coverage with a mix of publicists and reporters. "Some stories are energizing, like the impeachment, but I don't want to be burying John Kennedy again."

During Saturday's CNN news conference, Kaplan asked CNN correspondents to brief TV critics. While some networks had already started referring to Kennedy and his wife in the past tense, Kaplan said CNN executives made it clear to anchors and reporters that present tense should be used as long as a search and rescue mission was in progress.

Kaplan defended his network's decision to go wall-to-wall because CNN is a news network and "the story speaks for itself. This is of extraordinary importance, especially to Americans.

"The story is so fresh and still so developing that right now we're intensively trying to cover each event as we learn about it," Kaplan said. "At some point, clearly, we'll draw back into more reasonable coverage."

Although this news story broke on a Saturday, Kaplan said mobilizing the news-gathering troops didn't take long.

"Everybody who works for CNN, who is critical to CNN, carries beepers and is responsible for listening to the radio and watching TV," Kaplan said. "Most of the time you don't have to call any of them in. They hear what's going on, and they come in."

NEW SHOWS: CNN plans to scrap the "NewsStand" programs tied specifically to Time Warner publications such as Entertainment Weekly and Fortune.

Instead, beginning in September CNN will air a nightly "NewsStand" hour at 10 p.m. that will begin with the day's news and then segue into in-depth reports culled from the various Time Warner magazines.

Kaplan said the original idea behind the themed "NewsStand" programs was to create appointment shows similar to "Crossfire" and "Larry King Live." But "NewsStand" was pre-empted by breaking news so often early in the year, there was no way to build viewer loyalty.

"What we've learned as we analyze the situation is that we need to touch base with folks so they know we're out there covering the news of the moment," Kaplan said. "Sometimes the news of the moment will take up the whole hour of 'NewsStand,' and sometimes the news of the moment will only take up the first couple of minutes."

The network's flagship news hour, "The World Today," will air at 8 p.m. with Wolf Blitzer in Washington, Joie Chen in Atlanta and Jim Moret in Los Angeles.

CNN's daytime lineup will also get an overhaul, with more business news in the morning between 5 and 7 a.m. "MoneyTalks," an hour of business news and reports from Wall Street, will air at 11 a.m. "Street Sweep," airing at 4 p.m., will offer a wrap-up of the day's business news.

Kaplan said beefing up the network's financial coverage mirrors the increased involvement of Americans in the stock market. It's undoubtedly a competitive move as well to keep viewers from defecting to CNBC.

CNN officials also announced that Mary Matalin will take over as the conservative voice on the network's political talk show "Crossfire" (7:30 p.m. weekdays).

MORE TOONS: Cartoon Network will launch a spin-off network aimed at adults, specifically aging Baby Boomers. Boomerang will target adults older than 30 with cartoons from the Hanna-Barbera library, including Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw.

The network will launch April 1, 2000, and may eventually feature original programming. Rather than new cartoons, original programs are more likely to be about the history of animation, according to Cartoon Network president Betty Cohen.

REMAKE NIGHTMARE: TBS announced plans to remake "High Noon," the 1952 classic Western starring Gary Cooper. But not every member of the Turner family of stations thinks it's a wise move.

"What they're basically doing is cashing in on the title to try to get an audience," said Robert Osborne, on-air host of Turner Classic Movies. "Who can compete with Gary Cooper in that part? I always wish they'd go and remake those awful movies that were based on great books that did a terrible version the first time. But since we have Turner Classic Movies and you can see great films like 'High Noon,' there's no point in doing it."

Turner publicists just looked at one another nervously.

NEW TALKER: With John Henson leaving to develop a program for ABC, comedian Hal Sparks took over "Talk Soup" on E! earlier this month. Sparks -- yes that's his real name -- has a four-year contract with "Talk Soup."

"I've been on the job two weeks and everybody's already going, 'It's such a great stepping stone,' and I'm like, please, let me do the work before I move onto bigger and better things," Sparks said. "This is the bigger and better as far as I'm concerned."

Sparks, 27, said his "Talk Soup" will differ from Henson's version in the style of comedy.

"John had a very different sense of humor," Sparks said. "The writers developed a voice for him on the show that was more kind of a proddy, sarcasticky, 'guy's guy' kind of thing, and I'm more a goof. A lot of humor will be pointed more back at me than a reflection of the people or issues in the clips."

Talk show host Leeza Gibbons said she was horrified the first time she saw a clip from her talk show on "Talk Soup." At the time Gibbons was watching TV while in the bathtub reading research for her program.

"You can call me from the tub if you have a problem," Sparks told Gibbons, who was at the E! press conference to promote a special she has on the network.

Sparks said a "bevy of poor, unfortunate" unpaid interns watch hours of talk shows each day to find clips suitable for "Talk Soup." Even if talk shows follow Oprah's lead and go a kinder, gentler route, Sparks said "Talk Soup" can live on.

"If stupid talk shows go away, then we'll take clips from the smart shows and be stupid ourselves."

AND THEN THERE'S...: The controversial 1970s series "Maude" begins airing in prime time again next month on TV Land, and cast members say there's little that compares to it's socially aware commentary on contemporary sitcoms.

"It's pretty safe unless you include sexuality, and there's more comment [about that]," said Rue McClanahan, who played next-door neighbor, Vivian.

"There's an extra effort to try and get comedy results from sexual lines, innuendo. It proves the old saying, 'You can always get a laugh by dropping your pants.'"

BACK TO THE FUTURE: Regular readers know my all-time favorite TV show is "Homefront," a 1940s-era drama that aired for just two seasons on ABC in the early 1990s. I've heard from many readers who were fans of the series and shared my fondness for this underrated drama.

Finally, "Homefront" reruns may see the light of day. TV Land and Nick at Nite have brokered a deal with Warner Bros. Television that gives the networks access to many Warner Bros.-owned programs beginning in April 2000, including "Homefront." A network spokeswoman said the show will likely air at some point.

Given the swing music revival, TV Land would be crazy not to air all fortysomething episodes of the series, including at least one that was never broadcast on ABC.

WE'RE HUGE: Pittsburgh is the 19th-largest television market in the country according to Nielsen Media Research, but we've got the seventh-largest cable system in the country.

"Cable Television Developments Summer 1999," a publication of the National Cable Television Association, ranked the TCI system in Pittsburgh ahead of systems in many larger Nielsen markets, including Los Angeles.

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