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Tuned In: TNN sheds music shows in quest for new audience

Thursday, January 27, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's a situation that could easily be turned into a country music tune about love and loss. In an effort to attract more young male viewers, TNN has turned to rocking and socking action at the expense of country music programs.

Last week at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Brian Hughes, vice president of TNN programming, said the network phased out many of its long-running music shows because of ratings erosion and demographic declines (i.e. not enough advertising-friendly young people watching).

TNN is the No. 10 cable network in the country in terms of distribution, but it ranks No. 16 among adults 25 to 54 and No. 18 among adults 18 to 34.

While weekend favorites like "Grand Ole Opry" and "Life & Times" remain, "Crook and Chase" is gone, and so are programs hosted by Gary Chapman and The Statler Brothers.

"To remain competitive we knew we had to cancel these series and to develop new and acquired programming for TNN," Hughes said.

Though the number of live music shows has decreased, TNN plans more special event programming including Barry Manilow's "Manilow Country" (9 p.m. April 11) and the "Concert for Conservation" (May 31).

The decline in country music record sales in recent years also contributed to the network's ratings slippage, Hughes said. "While we have no intentions of abandoning our country roots, we knew that TNN needed to make some changes to remain competitive with the ever-growing number of cable and satellite networks."

Enter Friday night wrestling and "RollerJam" and now "Rockin' Bowl," a Tuesday night showdown between two college bowling teams. In addition, TNN will air arena football beginning in April.

The network also acquired rerun rights to "Matt Houston" (7 p.m. Monday through Thursday beginning next week), "The Magnificent Seven" (10 p.m. Wednesday) and "Cagney & Lacey" (11 a.m. and 6 p.m. weekdays starting next week).

TNN will continue to woo guys, as evidenced by its first original action series, "18 Wheels of Justice" (9 p.m. Wednesday), which premiered earlier this month. Lucky Vanous (the guy in the old Diet Coke ads) stars as a trucker in the Justice Department's witness protection program who is hunted by a crime lord. That bad guy is played by Watergate burglar-turned radio show host G. Gordon Liddy (talk about typecasting).

At a press conference to tout the show, Liddy said members of the Nixon administration would never have pictured him as an actor.

"The Nixon administration was very straight-laced, and whatever our sins, we didn't do two things," Liddy said. "We didn't do it in the Oval Office with girls, and if we had, we wouldn't have left any evidence."

WTAE DOINGS: Several initiatives by Hearst-Argyle, owner of WTAE, may have an impact on what TV viewers see in the coming months. The company recently launched "Campaign 2000," an effort to beef up election coverage.

WTAE general manager Jim Hefner said regular features will include "issue check" stories beginning 30 days before the primary and general elections, more "At Home" half-hour specials with Sally Wiggin interviewing candidates and "ad watch/Web watch," stories that critique the accuracy of campaign advertisements.

"There has been criticism from all sorts of quarters, rightfully or wrongfully, that television is not handling these kinds of issues adequately," Hefner said. "I think the company has heard those complaints, and they're saying, 'OK, we hear you; this is what we're going to do about it.' "

Another Hearst-Argyle program, the development of local Web sites in conjunction with its TV stations, rolls out its first effort in Pittsburgh as WTAE's new Web site debuts Sunday.

Hefner wouldn't reveal its address, but he said going to www.wtaetv.com will automatically jump Web surfers to the new site.

Hefner said the new site will contain the text of some reports from WTAE newscasts, particularly information on health and consumer stories that generate a lot of phone calls.

"We're not trying to replicate Channel 4 from television," Hefner said. "We're trying to use that vehicle to touch and talk to our customers, our viewers."

Hefner said the site will have a feedback element, and the on-air Channel 4 telephone feedback line will return in a few weeks.

another WTAE staffer is expecting.

Michelle Wright, an anchor for the 5 p.m. news, is due to give birth in June.

What's in the water at WTAE? Has Jim Parsons investigated this phenomenon?

PRESS TOUR TIDBITS: At every Television Critics Association press tour there are always questions at press conferences that stand out for their ability to cut to the point. The best of the bunch this time was posed by Tom Jicha of Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel, who asked UPN executives if they were concerned about the way the network is perceived.

"How do you feel about the image of UPN as the network of monster truck rallies, wrestling and cockfights, I guess?"

"I think if it has high testosterone, we'll air it," UPN President Dean Valentine replied.

My own weird Los Angeles moment came my first day there. I was ushered into Steven Bochco's office as he and "City of Angels" co-executive producer Paris Barclay concluded a conversation. Barclay, who previously worked on Bochco's "NYPD Blue," looked at me, then turned to Bochco to ask, "I didn't know we were casting Rick Schroder's younger brother."

I've certainly heard worse comparisons, so I'll take that one.

I was most heartened when I realized my one-man crusade to get the ABC drama "Homefront" (1991-1993) back on the air may come to pass.

TV Land will have rerun rights to "Homefront" in April, and executives there seem genuinely interested in airing the series, even asking for suggestions on how to program it. I know I wasn't the only fan of this period drama - set just after World War II - so I'll keep you posted.

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

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