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Tuned In: Ratings-grabbing ideas cop TV turkey awards

Thursday, November 25, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Let us give thanks for our local TV news people.

Yes, I'm serious. Frequently this column is devoted to criticism of TV news -- especially during a sweeps month like November -- but the fact is most reporters and anchors are intelligent, hard-working people.

Sometimes they agree with my criticism (off the record, of course) and don't like the breathless hype, pointless live shots or goofy gimmicks any more than I do.

On this day devoted to generosity and warm feelings I can even muster some empathy for station executives who are fighting to keep their jobs in a competitive television environment. I remember WPXI news director Jennifer Rigby saying something to the effect of, "It's not like we get up every day and say, 'Let's see how badly we can do.' "

I'm sure they don't. But sometimes they may confuse doing good in the name of journalism and the public with doing good in the name of ratings. It's possible to do both, but that doesn't always happen.

And that leads us to -- gobble, gobble! -- the annual TV turkey awards.

SAY WHAT? During a report earlier this month, WTAE anchor Mike Clark said the goal of ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" is "to help folks erase debt, send their kids to college and make their dreams come true." I could have sworn the goal of "Millionaire" is to achieve big ratings and rake in cash for ABC and its affiliates.

FINDING THE LOCAL ANGLE: No single TV news story has generated as much negative reader response as when local stations sent reporters to cover Hurricane Floyd in September. H.R. Hanna of Whitehall captured the feelings of many in an e-mail he sent.

"With all of the countless thousands of people having to be evacuated in Florida, the Carolinas and Virginia, why is it necessary for the executives at the local stations to send people from here to help congest those areas? It's not like the national news, CNN, Weather Channel, etc., aren't already covering the devastation. Must be that they have to feel that their respective stations are important ..."

EVERYBODY'S A CRITIC: Last month Pittsburgh City Councilman Jim Ferlo wasted City Council time berating Channel 11 for a report critical of his practice of getting parking tickets rescinded for city residents who park partially on the sidewalk. While Ferlo may have had a legitimate beef with the way WPXI promoted the story, the report itself had merit.

WHEN FAST MEANS SLOW: WQED is still waiting for the FCC to decide whether it should be allowed to sell off WQEX, yet FCC Chairman William E. Kennard had the gall to title an October speech, "The New FCC: Fast, Flat and Functional."

"If that gives you the image of a runner bent for victory, that is intended," Kennard said in an address at the Georgetown University Law Center. "This new FCC is on the move."

Like a slug maybe.

LIGHTS OUT: WQED begs for money several times a year as a PBS station dependent on support from "viewers like you," but sometimes I wonder how wisely they spend that cash. Whenever I drive past the Oakland station late at night the lights are on in many of the front offices, but there's no one inside.

STRETCHING THE MEANING: KDKA loves to brag about how its reporters/anchors have the "Hometown Advantage" and somehow that makes them better at their jobs (as a non-hometowner, I'd argue it's more important to be a good reporter first, you can always learn the area). But how does Channel 2 explain the hiring of new morning anchor Susan Barnett, a native of suburban Philadelphia? Does the Hometown Advantage now stretch across the state?

HOW'S THAT? KDKA touted in a weather promo "there's nothing local about predicting the weather," an attempt to poo-poo other stations that use local forecasters instead of the behemoth AccuWeather.

But is there anything particularly non-local about the weather? Sure, storm fronts come from elsewhere, but what's important to local viewers is how that front will affect Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Personally, I'd rather get a weather report from a meteorologist in town who can look out the window, read charts and formulate a forecast than someone who regurgitates a forecast by a meteorologist based somewhere else.

HOW TO LOSE A JOB: The online daily newsletter Shoptalk, aimed at the broadcasting profession, ran this item recently: "Put these items together, and let your imagination figure out what happened: a) Skycam9: A camera on a rooftop in downtown Eugene, Oregon, that is controlled from a local TV station; b) Hilton Hotel: Across the Street from Skycam9; c) Videotape: A medium used for recording visual images; d) Help wanted: Four positions open at a local TV station."

EATING HUMBLE PIE: Mmmm, mmmm, not-so-good. While I'm bestowing turkeys on others, it's only right that I smack myself upside the head, too. I misspelled Jon Delano's name. I had the wrong start time for the season premiere of "Felicity."

I speculated Jennifer Antkowiak would replace Patrice King Brown at 11 p.m. on KDKA. It hasn't happened yet, but it probably will someday, just as Michelle Wright is clearly in line for Sally Wiggin's spot at WTAE. TV people know that's the way the business works and some even talk about potential changes with the person who may someday take their place.

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

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