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Tuned In: Arts grab little coverage unless they make 'news'

Thursday, December 16, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The arts bring life to life -- according to buttons, magnets, posters and TV commercials by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Alliance.

Aside from big events like last week's opening of the O'Reilly Theatre, the arts get little play in TV news. But that's not why the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Alliance purchased advertisements on local TV stations and an "Arts Pittsburgh" vignette that airs Thursdays during WTAE's 6 p.m. news.

Marc Masterson, producing director at the City Theatre and co-chairman of the Arts Alliance, said the promotional campaign was designed to "build a relationship with people who have marginal participation in the arts and strengthen their awareness and connection to the arts community."

"It really wasn't that we looked at TV news and said they're not doing enough, let's buy some time," Masterson said. "We're using the medium to reach our target audience."

Promotional spots make it look like "Arts Pittsburgh" appears as part of WTAE's 6 p.m. newscast, but it actually airs alongside commercials as an advertorial voiced by Sally Wiggin, similar to the "Mercy Health Capsule" Patrice King Brown anchors on KDKA-TV.

"It is not produced by the news department," said WTAE news director Bob Longo. "We have no input into what it is or isn't."

The whole issue of the arts and TV made me wonder: Why don't we see more coverage?

"In most cities, television coverage does not really involve the arts in any depth," Masterson said. "Unless the arts [community] is doing something controversial or it involves a big news story, most television news doesn't address it."

That's just the way TV news is.

Deborah Acklin, who once worked in commercial TV news at KDKA and will executive produce WQED's upcoming newsmagazine "On Q," said local TV has evolved into almost exclusively news and public affairs programming. With local talk shows a relic of the past, there's no appropriate venue for, say, a live performance.

"The reality of the business is things have changed in local television and their mission is news and information," she said. "They cover [the arts] in the context of news and information."

Because "On Q" won't concern itself with news of the day, arts coverage will be a regular feature. In-studio performances -- music, dance, theater -- also will be prominent.

But "On Q" isn't a traditional newscast.

"TV tends to cover [the arts] more as breaking news events rather than updating people periodically," Longo said. "All the media today try to get as much bang for their buck. They try to get stories that interest the most number of people."

WPGH news director Tom Burke said research done by TV stations across the country shows viewers want more hard news, "so arts stuff falls into a less than hard news distinction."

What consumers want takes a greater precedence with TV than newspapers, Burke said. TV is linear and must keep viewers from flipping away, whereas newspaper readers pick and choose what they want to read. If a story doesn't interest them, they won't quit reading the paper; they'll simply flip the page to another article.

"The bottom line is we're still very much generalists," Burke said. "We're still trying to attract as broad an audience as possible."

Burke said publicists who pitch stories to TV stations, regardless of the subject, need to work harder.

"Media relations people don't know how to sell us on stories," he said. "We need more people to come forward and throw story ideas out. If they won't do it at one station, go to another."

WPXI news director Jennifer Rigby echoed those sentiments.

"The arts community has never come to me and said, 'We need more coverage,'" Rigby said. "Viewers have never called and said you need to cover this. It's not something that has elicited a whole lot of discussion. ... We haven't decided we won't cover the arts. The arts are evaluated just as any other news story is evaluated."

Masterson acknowledged arts groups have to do their part.

"Part of the responsibility falls on those of us in the arts community to position our events and stories in ways that would appeal to a news director," he said. "I wouldn't sidestep the responsibility for us to do that job."

WELCOME ADDITION: Channel 53's 10 p.m. news added a new twist recently. Rather than tell viewers about stories "coming up," anchors John Huck and Sheila Hyland announce an exact time when some stories will air.

Stations elsewhere do this, and though I wonder if it might encourage channel surfing, Channel 53 deserves credit for making news-watching more convenient by giving viewers such information.

Y2K OVERBOARD: I wish the folks at Channel 11 had seen Monday night's "7th Heaven."

In the episode, 8-year-old Ruthie overreacted to the approach of 2000 with the same frenzy as WPXI. Ruthie tried to learn how to cook over an open flame; Channel 11 sends Newlin Archinal off to chase down Y2K stories on what seems like a daily basis.

Maybe there will be catastrophes aplenty for Channel 11 to cover on New Year's Eve, but with most companies and municipalities reporting they're Y2K-ready, that seems unlikely.

WNPA ADDS WEATHER: WNPA, Channel 19, will begin broadcasting weather updates at 10 and 11 p.m. weeknights beginning Monday. In less than one minute, Channel 19 will tell viewers about current conditions, overnight and next-day forecasts and a five-day outlook.

WNPA has no studio in Pittsburgh and no news or weather staff. Jim Madaus, chief meteorologist at WNPA's sister station in Detroit, will present the forecast via satellite.

WNPA program director Mark Cooper said Madaus has been provided with correct pronunciations for the names of towns in the region.

Madaus will also offer forecasts for other Viacom-owned stations. He started on the group's Philadelphia station this week, Boston will get forecasts beginning Dec. 27, and Norfolk will join the lineup in early January.

UPN MAY SURVIVE: A report in this week's Broadcasting & Cable magazine indicates the FCC is expected to allow Viacom to keep its stake in UPN after its merger with CBS. Current FCC rules don't allow the major networks to own a second broadcast network. The magazine reports those rules will likely be loosened sometime early next year.

Viacom owns Pittsburgh's WNPA, and CBS owns KDKA.

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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