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Tuned In: WTAE-TV's news set looks just like the others

Saturday, September 11, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

WTAE unveiled an updated news set Wednesday night, and it's, well, just like every other news set in town.

Taken alone, the set looks smart and professional, especially the durable-looking wood desk. If it's made of plywood and balsa, you can't tell on TV.

But by adding a cityscape to the background -- with day and night photos of Downtown -- Channel 4's set now looks too much like the sets used by Channel 2, Channel 11 and Channel 53 for their newscasts. Whether you liked or hated WTAE's old set, it was at least unique.

This sameness is another example of the homogenization of the market following the introduction of Nielsen's ratings meters in 1995. Or maybe it's just the way of the industry: Cityscapes are common backdrops across the country and attractive wood desks are in style (thank you, "Dateline NBC").

Channel 4's new set includes an area where reporters can introduce their stories while standing in front of a large monitor. This looks particularly polished, but again, it's nothing new.

There's a slightly-deeper-than-baby-blue background on either side of the cityscape visible behind the anchors in some shots. I'm not wild about it, but it may grow on me.

During the interim between the old and new set, Sally Wiggin moved to the chair on the right side of the screen (from the audience's point of view). Now she's back on the left, typically considered the driver's seat for the more prominent anchor on a newscast. Also, the 5 p.m. hour of news with Scott Baker and Michelle Wright has moved out of the newsroom and into the studio.

Channel 4 retained blue and red as its signature colors, and unfortunately the graphics and music have yet to change. Evidently that overhaul will be made on a corporate level by Hearst-Argyle, WTAE's owner, in conjunction with other stations in the chain. I'm sure it's more cost-effective for Hearst stations to agree on a similar look and sound, but I wish Channel 4 had the autonomy to ditch its current look when it introduced the revamped set.

The new set's "weather kingdom" got the most attention on the air this week, although to me it looks more like the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Check out the shape of the weather center in one of those weathercaster-dwarfing wide shots: There's Joe DeNardo's desk where the captain's chair should go surrounded by stations for "PINPOINT DOPPLER," "NEXRAD DOPPLER," Lt. Uhura's communications console, etc.

The weather center looks deeper than before, but the biggest difference is the size of the monitors. Instead of many small TVs, the weather set now boasts several huge screens. Sometimes the station's meteorologists use the oversize monitors in place of the blue weather wall, a refreshing change.

Now that WTAE has updated its set, Channel 11 is next in line for a makeover. There's nothing terribly wrong with WPXI's set, but the boxy, plastic-looking news desk looks dated.

Ultimately, the cosmetic appearance of TV news is just that. It has nothing to do with the quality of the reports, but it's something viewers notice. Given Channel 4's current screen-hogging graphics, a new graphic look will have more impact on viewers than the set change.

I'm just waiting for the day when Mr. Spock turns up in the weather center or Stephen Cropper, at one of the rear consoles, turns to DeNardo and exclaims, "Cap'n, I'm givin' her all she's got! I don' know if she'll hold together!"

That would be unique.

CHANGE OF PLANS: Now it seems Dan Rather and "The CBS Evening News" will only broadcast from Pittsburgh one day next week. They'll be on the air from the new Alcoa building Friday.

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

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