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Tuned In: TV comes down hard on the soft side of the news

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Critic

In the halcyon days of TV news, evening newscasts were limited to 30 minutes and each one ended with a local feature, usually called "the kicker" in newsroom parlance. Sometimes these stories were funny, sometimes heartwarming.

I've been thinking about features a lot lately, in part because Liz Miles will give her last report tonight on WTAE during the second half of the 5 p.m. newscast. Miles is moving to Phoenix, where her husband got a job.

WTAE general manager Jim Hefner said he'll leave decisions on how Miles' position will be filled to incoming news director Bob Longo. If Longo opts not to replace Miles with a feature reporter, Pittsburgh will be left with just one dedicated feature reporter: KDKA's Dave Crawley.

That would be a shame.

Crawley does excellent work and his recent Emmy nomination was deserved, but his reports shouldn't be the only game in town.

Covering hard news is a TV station's primary responsibility, but there should be room for well-written local pieces that make viewers laugh, cry or sigh. Stations have no compunction scaring viewers into watching; why not play on more upbeat emotions?

Newscasts have "guaranteed good news" or "neighborhood newswatch" segments, but those aren't traditional features. They're 20-second voice-overs to accompany video shot on the fly.

Matt Friedman, a 27-year-old public relations account executive in Detroit, escaped from TV in 1998 for a less hectic life after working in TV newsrooms in Atlanta, Orlando and Detroit. He remembers getting a memo that said feature stories would no longer be produced.

"I asked a manager about it and he said the research showed viewers don't want it," Friedman said.

He thinks that answer was too easy, and points instead to stations jockeying to have the most stories, shorter stories and faster-paced newscasts.

"They think their enemy is the remote and that if they spend too much time on a story somebody will hit the remote control," Friedman said. "A feature story well-told takes longer than a hard news story. It takes a creative use of video and sound and time."

Time means resources, which means money, which means paying someone to craft a single feature rather than rush around putting together multiple reports to fill the growing number of evening newscasts.

"All of this is a disservice to the viewer," Friedman said. "If you look at TV news, it has become so homogenized. Pittsburgh looks like Orlando or Detroit or somewhere else. Local news becomes less local by not having feature reporters."

Lou Prato, a native of Indiana, Pa., worked at Channel 11 in the late 1960s as a producer before running newsrooms in Detroit and Dayton. He remembers producing the 11 p.m. news with Adam Lynch and deciding early on each day what would be used for the kicker.

"A good feature reporter can have people talking," Prato said. "I've always believed the water cooler theory."

Prato and Friedman agree increased competition and the emphasis on live reports contributed to the decline in features, but they think a feature reporter can attract ratings if he or she does quality work.

"What passes for features today are 20-second snippets and video packages, but they're not features that are memorable," Prato said. "How many times have you seen the reporter riding the elephant at circus time?"

Pittsburgh native Jeanne Moos questions whether there was ever good feature writing on local TV, but the CNN reporter acknowledged features get short shrift by TV news management.

"They don't realize how much people like it if it's done well," she said. "They treat it like it's easy and fluff, but it doesn't have to be fluff even when it's about fluff. It's harder to write good fluff than it is to write good straight news."

Moos would know. She started at CNN covering hard news, including the United Nations during the Gulf War. In 1995 she switched to her current role of "video humorist" (she did a recent two-part story on how people part their hair) and has no regrets. Moos, a 1972 graduate of Penn Hills Senior High, won awards for hard news, but she said viewers are more likely to remember her feature stories.

"I find it easy to tell a story, but to find a kernel of truth in everyday events and everyday things, that's what I'm trying to do," she said. "It doesn't have to be hysterical, just done with a certain touch."

Mike Leonard has brought his unique view to features for the "Today" show since 1980. He works out of his home office in Winnetka, Ill., delivering two three-minute reports each month. And yes, it is a full-time job.

"It really takes a long time to do them," Leonard said. "I was just in California, shooting for two days; you lose a day traveling, then you have to look at tapes and write and edit it. When you pump out more, there's not enough time to think about it."

When he started on "Today" the show had five feature reporters, Leonard said. Now he's the only one, crafting stories like last fall's feature on Stateside, Ind., a town split in half by the Eastern and Central time zones. He's working on a report for next week about a new dog pregnancy kit.

"I think with live technology TV has moved away from the feature pieces people did," he said. "TV news gets criticized a lot about content and they'll say, 'We should make it harder,' and the feature person seems to be the most expendable."

So here's the challenge to local stations: Spend resources on a smart, talented writer-reporter who can craft local features for a regular newscast segment. It might just earn viewer loyalty and give a newscast more integrity than gimmicky sweeps hoopla.

GOOD JOB: In this era of school violence it would be the ultimate act of irresponsibility not to clearly mark news footage from last week's simulated school attack as a drill. Our local stations deserve credit for doing the right thing.

WPXI was especially responsible, running a "Disaster Drill" tag throughout Jodine Costanzo's report. KDKA, WPGH and WTAE used a "Simulation" tag over their reports, although the disclaimer appeared and disappeared from the screen more often than on WPXI.

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