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Tuned In: KDKA anniversary show rich in history, nostalgia

Thursday, September 30, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

KDKA time-travels back to its earliest days at 8 p.m. tomorrow for an anniversary special, "KDKA-TV: Celebrating 50 Years In Our Hometowns."

Written and produced by Dave Crawley and co-produced and edited by Dave Forstate, the hourlong special offers a trip down memory lane for longtime viewers and a history lesson for newcomers.

What most surprised me was the number of programs produced locally, from the ancient ("Slim Bryant and the Wildcats") to more recent endeavors ("Evening Magazine").

It's fun to see Patrice King Brown goofing around with Jon Burnett on "Pittsburgh 2 Day" and the various hosts of "Evening Magazine." It's also a little depressing given the current state of the local TV business.

Unless something changes and stations begin producing local programs again, the 75th anniversary special won't have anything other than news coverage to add to this 50th anniversary show.

Despite the falling out between Patti Burns and KDKA management, she's a prominent figure in the program, discussing her father's role in the station's heritage. ("One must rise above management," she said when I called to ask if the interview was new.) Clips from a 1983 interview with Bill Burns are included, along with sound bites from some of his reports and a brief glimpse of him anchoring with his daughter.

The special also highlights big news stories covered by KDKA in recent years, including a few gratuitous plugs for current franchises -- as if viewers don't endure enough braggadocio promotional spots on TV every day.

Not that all promos are bad. It's fun and enlightening to view spots from years past to see changes in a station's strategy. Humorous promos made WTAE's 40th anniversary special particularly entertaining last year, but KDKA skimps in its retrospective.

There are snippets of sappy singers belting out promotional jingles ending in a "KD + You" tag. And Crawley and crew deserve credit for seeking out a teen-ager who appeared in a spot when she was 4 years old. But when it comes to showing complete promotional spots, KDKA's special falls short.

Still, that's a minor complaint. Slick production values and Crawley's writing and interviews make "KDKA-TV: Celebrating 50 Years In Our Hometowns" worth watching for anyone interested in Pittsburgh TV history.

CONTRACT CHATTER: John McIntire recently re-upped with PCNC as host of "Night Talk" for two more years. Scott Baker will remain at WTAE at least until next summer. KDKA's Ken Rice signed a new contract this summer and landed a seat at the anchor desk for the 11 p.m. news.

But questions surround the contracts of other local TV talent.

At WPGH both anchor John Huck and sports anchor Alby Oxenreiter are in negotiations. Their three-year contracts expire in December, but general manager Michael Norten wouldn't comment on the status of either deal.

Huck said he likes Pittsburgh and wants to stay.

"You move around so much in this business that you come to a point where you say, 'Gee, wouldn't it be nice to stay put for a while?' " Huck said. "I feel like I have a stake in the newscast. I was there for the first night and saw it through rocky times. Things are going smoothly now and I'd like to see it through just like any other project."

It will be interesting to see what happens to Oxenreiter, especially since there's an opening at KDKA-TV after Paul Steigerwald left to do Penguins play-by-play for radio.

If Oxenreiter should attempt a jump to KDKA, there's surely a non-compete clause in his contract that could keep him off the air for as much as a year. Plus, WPGH has done a lot of branding around Oxenreiter (i.e. "Ox on Fox") so there's plenty of incentive for the station to keep him.

KDKA morning anchor Karen Schroeder has not been shy about telling colleagues her plans to leave the station when Bryant Gumbel's "The Early Show" begins Nov. 1. That change will bump the start of KDKA's local news up to 5 a.m.

Schroeder, whose contract isn't up until February, said her family -- including daughter Serena, who turns 2 in December -- needs to come first.

"I just want to be a full-time mom," Schroeder said. "I couldn't see myself giving them a full commitment on this [revamped show]."

KDKA has hired Susan Barnett to take Schroeder's place.

Barnett, a native of Levittown, Pa., is currently a noon anchor/reporter at WCIA, the CBS affiliate in Champaign, Ill.

Her start date at KDKA hasn't been finalized, but I'm sure the station would like to have its new team in place before "The Early Show" premieres.

'ALLY' OOPS? Tuesday night Fox premiered its trimmed-to-a-half-hour reruns of "Ally McBeal," with its title appropriately shortened to "Ally." The network didn't send out a copy of the episode because new scenes were supposedly being shot.

I watched it and didn't notice anything new. Then again, it's been two years since the episode "Ally" was edited from originally aired, so maybe there were new bits I didn't recognize.

What's interesting about "Ally," judging by this week's episode and a few future installments Fox sent to critics, is its focus. David E. Kelley is cutting his old episodes to 22 minutes (after commercials), and Fox indicated Kelley would keep the most comedic story from old episodes and ditch everything else.

Instead, Kelley focuses on more emotional, Ally-centered stories, forsaking scenes of hilarity with the supporting cast. Viewers who like the wackiness of "Ally McBeal" but hate the title character's self-absorption will have no patience for "Ally."

Technically, "Ally" benefits from funky editing techniques (sped-up film, jump cuts) and the new folksy theme song has some charm.

As a rerun, "Ally" is fine and probably would do better in syndication than repeats of the hour-long edition (the impetus for this truncated version of the show). But infrequent "Ally McBeal" viewers will scratch their heads over references to events from past episodes.

The season premiere of "Ally McBeal" -- the hour-long show with new stories -- will air Oct. 25.

NO PREVIEW: UPN executives refused to send out tapes of the season premiere of "Shasta McNasty" (9:30 tonight on WNPA) for critics to review.

That's usually a bad sign, but in this case the network may feel critics have written the show off based on a few scenes they saw at press tour. "Shasta McNasty" -- we'll concede the title doesn't roll off the tongue so much as it drools -- focuses on the lives of a three-man rap group in Southern California.

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