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Tuned In: Where's the wacky news that comes with sweeps?

Thursday, February 10, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

So far, so bland. Local TV news February sweeps reports haven't lived down to the depths of unintended hilarity they reached in November (WPXI's Becky Thompson standing in the path of automatic doors, WTAE's Scott Baker reporting from inside a burning building).

After the first week of sweeps, there's nothing that compares. Just WPXI's Julie Bologna driving an SUV, doing doughnuts in a snow-covered parking lot with tips for driving in the white stuff.

Viewers may not get reruns in prime time during sweeps, but so far the news features are just that: highly promotable repeats of stories from sweeps months past.

We've seen reporters try to teach us to drive in the snow umpteen times. There was absolutely nothing new in WTAE's report Tuesday night about "The Search for Cherrie Mahan." And there was no news value in KDKA's report on "Pet Hoarders." The profile of a pet hoarder amounted to "crazy old lady" and I doubt that was news to anyone.

NEW FRANCHISE: Within the next few weeks, WTAE will premiere "Call 4 Action," a new franchise on its 11 p.m. newscast.

Susan Koeppen, a weekend anchor/reporter at the NBC affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., will join Channel 4 as the station's "Call 4 Action" reporter.

News director Bob Longo said the station swiped the "Call For Action" franchise from KDKA-AM radio (and changed the "for" to "4" for obvious reasons), where it aired for decades.

He said "Call 4 Action" is a troubleshooting organization that helps people with problems (i.e. contract disputes), staffs a call-in phone bank and serves as a clearinghouse for consumer information.

"This genre of stories is very interesting on TV if done well, and we plan to do it well," Longo said. "Susan is a real good digger for information, a tenacious storyteller." He said the "Call 4 Action" reports will "all have some digging, some investigatory [reporting] in them ... and they'll be getting results and showing viewers potential pitfalls and remedies."

Wendy Bell will continue to report consumer stories for WTAE's early newscasts.

Longo had no comment on the station's promotional spots that featured video images of KDKA weathercaster Larry Richert. Richert thought the spots made him look bad and the Pittsburgh local of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists sent a letter to WTAE demanding the station stop running the spots.

Ironically, in the midst of that controversy, WTAE dropped the ball Sunday night when the station had no meteorologist on its 11 p.m. newscast. Longo said Mike Stone was ill with the flu and unable to go on the air.

LOOKS BETTER: Last week WTAE debuted new "lower thirds," the graphics at the bottom of the screen that display anchor, reporter and interview subject names.

As you'll recall, the old graphics literally took up the lower third of the screen. The new graphics are a vast improvement and make watching WTAE newscasts easier.

But there's sometimes still a distracting graphic block in the lower right corner of the TV screen. Last week the block had a picture of the station's helicopter in it, just to be sure viewers understood the aerial shot was coming from Sky 4.

NEW NEWS: WBBM, the CBS-owned station in Chicago, revamped its late newscast this week and switched to a solo anchor format with Carol Marin as "senior editor." You'll recall she quit her job at another Chicago station when Jerry Springer was hired to give a commentary during the news.

The Chicago Tribune reported the stripped-down newscast won't feature endless teases, pointless live shots or time-filling stories about cute animals.

"My idea of news hell is doing, 'Here's the real story behind the scenes of the "Chicago Hope" episode you just saw,' " Marin told the Chicago Tribune. "I'm not going to do that."

Monday's premiere drew huge viewer gains, but many of those tuning in may have just been curious. Whether these improved numbers for the longtime low-rated newscast hold up won't be known for some time. But if it is a success, will any Pittsburgh stations have the guts to follow WBBM's example?

GUEST STARRING: Let's call them serial guest stars. They're actors who keep showing up on different shows in different parts within a short time. They're fine actors, but they can make you go hmmmm....

That faint recollection of seeing the actor elsewhere can take viewers out of the show and send them on a trip down memory lane. And that's not a great thing for TV shows that want to keep your attention.

In recent weeks the number of serial guest stars has gotten out of hand. Erich Anderson plays the father of "Felicity," but he's also Jill Kirkendall's slimeball ex-husband on "NYPD Blue."

Ted Marcoux played a homeless man on "Ally McBeal" and just a few weeks later showed up as a murder defendant on a two-part episode of "The Practice" set in Los Angeles.

In that same episode, actor Anthony Heald had a delightful turn as an arrogant judge ("Mass-a-CHU-setts"), and he'll turn up again on Sunday's "X-Files."

Casting directors need to cast a wider net.

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

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