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Tuned In: TV news ratings quest nearly sweeps anchors and reporters away

Thursday, December 02, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

There are so many lessons we could learn from the just-ended November sweeps period. But here's what I got out of it: If you're a TV news anchor/reporter in Pittsburgh, you'd better watch your back. Your bosses might be trying to send you to TV news heaven.

WTAE tried to burn up Scott Baker in a sweeps report on how to escape a fire. Then Sally Wiggin got headbutted by the Pittsburgh Zoo's baby elephant, and WPXI consumer reporter Becky Thompson was squished by automatic doors -- repeatedly.

Actually, Wiggin's story on the elephant was cute (too bad WTAE is an ABC affiliate -- this would have been the perfect story to promote during NBC's animal-loving "Providence"), but it was a tad disturbing to see the elephant charge her over and over in teases for the report.

Thompson's story on automatic doors at stores has some legitimate news value (an interview with a woman injured by an automatic door), but we didn't need to see Thompson waiting for the doors to close on her again and again. The same goes for the poor guy who volunteered to put his neck in the path of the closing doors.

POKÉMON WARS: Those darn pocket monsters invaded TV newscasts last month.

The same week Channel 2's John Shumway did a well-rounded examination of the Pokémon phenomenon, Channel 11 predictably went the sensational route, ominously warning, "one man says they're pure evil." But in Amy Marcinkiewicz's report, viewers learned there was no real threat; it was just a crackpot minister in North Carolina who also found the devil's doing in Power Rangers, Cabbage Patch Kids and Barney.

One viewer called me to complain she was sick of hearing about Pokémon on the news. When something becomes as popular as this Japanese import, TV news has an obligation to cover it. But when stations start using Pokémon repeatedly in an effort to lure viewers to a newscast, then TV news goes too far.

GOOD SWEEPS STORIES: Sweeps stories don't have to be mind-numbingly awful. Really. It's possible to come up with sweeps features that can be promoted throughout the day without scaring viewers into watching. I'm not sure all of the stories below qualify as sweeps pieces, but they were all informative and worth watching.

KDKA's Lynne Hayes-Freeland reported on job sharing using an example where it's worked well for all parties. WPXI's Becky Thompson informed viewers about the catch in recent advertisements for free computers. KDKA's Mary Robb Jackson covered advances in orthodontic practices and how some children now get braces in two stages.

KDKA's John Shumway mined local history for an interesting report on ramps that were designed but never built, causing drivers to take the "Long Way Around." WTAE's Wendy Bell looked into the hot toys of the season in several entertaining pieces. She also compared prices for prescription drugs in a straight-forward, helpful way.

Most of these reports are soft stories with no immediate news value, but that's OK. Not everything is breaking news. Bell, Thompson and KDKA's Yvonne Zanos are all designated consumer reporters and if nothing else, I look at them as my three moms. They're always there to offer advice.

Can I wash clothing labeled "dry clean"? Thompson told me I could.

What nastiness is lurking in my home's air ducts? Zanos showed me the gunk.

I'm sure some TV news purists have no use for these reports, but with the newscast expansion of recent years I think there's plenty of room for them.

Sometimes these stories are used to whip viewers into hysterics (WPXI is most guilty of that) and other times they generate a "well, duh" reaction. (Bell as much as admitted that in a report on space heaters that she began by saying, "at the risk of beating you over the head with common sense tips....") But when done right, there's nothing wrong with consumer news.

INVESTIGATIONS: WTAE was in full investigative mode last month for better and for worse. While some of the information was informative and newsworthy, the methods of reporters Jim Parsons and Paul Van Osdol sometimes defeated their cause.

Viewers have every right to know whether Jury Commissioner Jean Milko is at her office or a Democratic Party meeting on county time, but by rushing up to her in a parking lot and peppering her with questions as she tried to get in her car, WTAE created unintended sympathy for Milko.

There were more chases in this week's report on non-handicapped people parking in handicapped spots in Downtown garages. Channel 4 pointed out clear cases of wrongdoing, but the attack dog approach dampened the report's effectiveness.

CRAWLEY KUDOS: Once again Dave Crawley proved himself a valuable asset to KDKA, crafting (and what Crawley does truly is a craft) reports on Thanksgiving's status among holidays and a report on 15 minutes of fame.

But my favorite Crawley feature bashed ABC's "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" for repetition, intrusive lighting and irritating music. At first it seemed like a cheap shot at a show on a rival network, but Crawley redeemed himself by asking, "If I ridiculed a CBS show the way I did this one, I'd get: a) Gold star, b) Silver star, c) Red star, d) Pink slip."

SCREECHING HALT: Not since "Seinfeld" has the nation joined in collective mourning for the death of a long-running TV show. Yes, it's true, my friends, "Saved by the Bell" will have its final original telecast Saturday at 1 p.m. on WPXI.

It's not as sad as the end of the original series, which ran from 1989 to 1993 and introduced us to the likes of Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Elizabeth Berkley, Mario Lopez and Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Saturday marks the end of "Saved by the Bell: The New Class" (1994 to 1999), and at this point NBC has no plans for "Saved by the Bell: Another New Class."

That means Screech (Dustin Diamond) and Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins) will no longer be around, and Saturday kids' TV will be a little bit emptier without them. Sniff.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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