Where there's smoke ... there's a TV station ready for sweeps.
Last week, WTAE kicked off the November sweeps period with a report that exemplifies the excesses of easy-to-promote stories.
During a sweeps month, local stations go out of their way to attract viewers through news reports, contests and hype of all sorts. Nielsen Media Research measures viewership during sweeps, and stations use the results to set future advertising rates.
Thursday during WTAE's 5 p.m. newscast, anchor Scott Baker was sent in full firefighter's gear into a burning building at the Fire Training Academy in North Park. Ostensibly, the report was to offer tips on "Getting Out Alive," but it quickly turned into a comedy of errors.
Once Baker was in the burning building, a breathing mask made it almost impossible to understand what he was saying. Baker sounded like a cross between Darth Vader and the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon (wah-wa-wa-wah-wah-wah).
Anchors Michelle Wright and Mike Clark tried to offer interpretation, but the report was a waste of time and energy regardless. Who hasn't learned about "stop, drop and roll" in elementary school?
Poor Baker -- soot-covered but no longer inside the burning building wearing the breathing apparatus -- seemed embarrassed during a wrap-up report on the 6 p.m. news.
"I can't remember how I volunteered for this job," Baker said. "I think I was volunteered by somebody else."
Baker said the worst he had to do last year was deep-fry a turkey live on TV. Actually, the station did the same thing this year with Baker as the turkey.
"I'm scared to find out what they'll want me to do next November," Baker said.
He's not alone.
IF YOU CAN'T BEAT 'EM... Holier-than-thou KDKA-TV, which regularly skewers other stations for offering contests, has been chatting up a contest on its airwaves.
During the 6:30 p.m. half-hour, sports anchors read a trivia question and tout a contest at www.dsports.com/kdka.
There are plenty of differences between this and the other stations' contests -- it's not watch-and-win, and it appears KDKA isn't shelling out any money -- but to viewers, a contest is a contest is a contest.
Worse than the contest is KDKA's decision to allow sportscasters to promote advertiser Dick's Sporting Goods, which operates the Web site holding the contest. Are we headed back to the days when John Cameron Swayze promoted cigarettes during the nightly "Camel News Caravan"?
GOOD TOPIC: Too often local stations try to scare viewers into watching, but WPXI's Andy Gastmeyer offered a worthwhile report on campus binge drinking at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
It was a no-nonsense, sensation-free story that included risk factors and recent deaths from binge drinking, a topic that merits more coverage than it usually receives.
PROMISES, PROMISES: If you're going to show irrelevant, sensational footage, at least deliver what you promise.
Tuesday night, Channel 11 told viewers they'd see the end of a car chase in Los Angeles. Later the station broadcast more of the chase than had been in the tease, but there was nothing that looked like the chase's conclusion. Come on WPXI, you're disappointing all the fans of "WWF Smackdown!" with unfulfilled promises like that.
HAVING IT BOTH WAYS: KDKA gets points for creativity at least in its promotion for a Tuesday night sweeps feature on dirty kitchens.
The promo started out in scary WPXI-style with the words "Germs," "Bacteria" and "Impurities" appearing on-screen in a skanky-looking typeface. Then the announcer put on his "guaranteed good news" voice and promised, "We'll show you how to clean it up." That's one way to tiptoe into sensational TV land at the beginning of a spot, but back out of it at the end.
GOING LIVE: KDKA took its 5 p.m. news on the road to various localities this week, but with the sun setting earlier than in May when Channel 2 did the same thing, it doesn't work so well. The anchors spend most of the hour in the dark.
But KDKA has come up with decent stories on these day trips. I especially liked a report by Andy Briggs about efforts to recruit Catholic priests in Morgantown, W.Va. Religious news -- and I'm not talking about the latest scandal -- is too often ignored by all forms of media.
KDKA also seems to have embarked on a campaign to offer live reports from its reporters' homes. Tuesday night Yvonne Zanos was live in her kitchen. Monday night John Shumway whispered in a live report from his sleeping daughter's bedroom on how kids need to get more sleep. But if that's the case, why risk disrupting his daughter's sleep?
YOUR TWO CENTS: Have you seen sweeps series that you deem particularly good or irksome? If so, post your reviews to the Web site listed in italics at the end of this column.
TAKING A REST: WTAE's feedback line has been noticeably absent from the end of newscasts in recent weeks. News director Bob Longo said it will return after a break of a few months.
"We just felt it became stale. It was the same old calls, and we wanted to make it fresh again," Longo said. "We'll bring it back in a slightly changed format."
ON THIS DATE IN HISTORY: In its ongoing "Save Our History" campaign, The History Channel commemorates Veterans Day with a new one-hour special, "Dear Home: Letters from WWII" (tonight at 8).
Hosted by Harry Smith, the program offers a chronological collection of snippets from letters soldiers sent home during World War II.
This special can't compare to some of the books written on this subject, but in this e-mail era it's nice to hear words read from actual letters. The writing reflects the period, but much of it is surprisingly frank in its description of the horrors of war.
"Dear Home" would have more impact if it concentrated more on a few select servicemen, but even as it hops from letter to letter, the special can't help but make viewers realize the great sacrifices that were made.
Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or email@example.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.