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Tuned In: Sweeps bring out share of winners, losers

Thursday, March 09, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Three things we've learned from the February sweeps period:

1. No good deed goes unpunished.

WTAE took a stand, shelving its "Easiest Game in Town" contest, and the station's news ratings took a hit. At 5 and 6 p.m., WTAE ranked third in both time periods, down from its household ratings in those time slots a year ago when the station came in second.

Folks love to point a waggling finger at TV news, but in this case blame for perpetuating contest hype clearly lies with contest-hungry viewers. WTAE general manager Jim Hefner said no decision has been made on whether the station will use contests in the future.

WTAE was up at 6 a.m. significantly (a reflection on Michelle Wright substituting for Melanie Shafer for half the sweeps period or Shafer's return from maternity leave?). WPXI was up a bit, but KDKA shot up an entire ratings point compared to a year ago. KDKA remains in third place but gained on WPXI.

2. Regis and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" may have saved ABC, which came in first during the sweeps period (NBC and CBS tied for second in households), but they're not helping WTAE much.

Ratings for the 11 p.m. news on Pittsburgh's ABC affiliate were up from a year ago, but the station still landed in third place.

3. The bloom is off the "On Q" rose.

WQED's magazine show premiered in January with an average 1.6 rating/2 share for its 7:30 p.m. live telecast. In February, the ratings wilted to a 0.9 rating/1 share. Ratings for the 11:30 p.m. and noon repeats also dropped.



AFTERMATH: I was on vacation last week and missed local news reports on the Wilkinsburg shootings, but I've heard my share of kudos and complaints about the coverage (e.g. "WTAE had the best coverage; Scott Baker did a great job," "WPXI and WTAE will win awards, but where was KDKA?").

The shooting also proved a test for the newly formed news cooperative that allows ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates to share video footage. From the perspective of staffers at Pittsburgh's Fox affiliate, WPGH, it didn't work too well.

Their coup of getting footage for "The Ten O'Clock News" of suspect Ronald Taylor smirking as he came out of the building where he'd been hiding was tempered when WTAE violated an embargo and broadcast the video at the start of its 5 p.m. newscast.

WPGH news director Tom Burke said WPGH provided the footage with a clear embargo that prevented competing Pittsburgh stations from using the video, and he got confirmation from multiple sources that the embargo was included with the feed.

WTAE news director Bob Longo said there was no embargo listed when the video came off the feed.

"In the heat of the moment when you look at video and it doesn't say 'embargo' you assume it's ABC proprietary video," Longo said. "We saw it; we used it."

After receiving a call from WPGH assistant news director John Poister, Longo said he discovered the embargo on a run-down separate from the feed, and Channel 4 stopped using the video.

Burke, who responded to questions but was not the person who contacted me about this story behind the story, said he didn't want to make a big deal about it.

"I didn't want to go on 'On Q' [with other TV station news directors last week] in case that came up," Burke said. "It might have reinforced in people's minds their beliefs that we are vultures, and I don't want any part of that."

Longo pointed to another use of the Network News Service last week that's not in dispute: Channel 4 video, graphics and talent were visible in footage used on the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather."



'THE VIEW' MOVES TO DAYTIME: It took a couple years, but WTAE will add ABC's "The View" to its daytime lineup, delighting all the folks who call me to complain it's on in the wee hours of the morning. "The View" will air on Channel 4 at 11 a.m. beginning March 27. "The Martin Short Show" moves to 1 a.m.



HAZY FUTURES: When ABC announced "Sports Night" would conclude its season April 4 with two original episodes still unaired, it seemed a sure sign the show will be canceled. But there's a chance another network could pick it up.

NBC seems like the most likely savior. "Sports Night" is a smart show, so it probably fits NBC's audience profile better than middlebrow ABC. It would also be a way to keep "Sports Night" creator Aaron Sorkin happy; he also writes NBC's "The West Wing." Come to think of it, "Sports Night" would make a good lead-in to "The West Wing." Are you listening NBC?

In a teleconference with reporters last week, NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa said if "Sports Night" were canceled, he would consider picking it up, despite the show's low ratings.

As for low-rated "Freaks and Geeks," which returns at 8 p.m. Monday, NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier said he remains hopeful about the show's prospects. Although the ratings don't show it, buzz on the show was building before it got yanked last month during sweeps.

NBC will move the game show "Twenty One" to Monday at 9 p.m. starting next week. Beginning Saturday, "The Others" will air at 9 p.m. with "Profiler" back in the 10 p.m. time slot.



GOD'S PUBLICIST: It's not often the publicity materials sent out for a TV show are funnier than the show itself. Then again, most TV show publicists don't send letters "from the desk of God."

But that's what I received to promote NBC's "God, the Devil and Bob" (8:30 tonight).

"I hate doing these things but my publicist tells me it's the price I have to pay for getting my name in the title," God writes. Actually, God must not have typed it, because He would have remembered the comma before "but."

God goes on to say He (or She) has a hard time watching His or Her work, adding, "I'm still not happy with France." He's also displeased by His show's time slot.

God goes on in an effort to intimidate me, saying, "Don't think about my power. Don't give a thought to the fate of your immortal soul. Like I said to the good people of Gomorrah, it's your call."

Now you know how I chose the cover for last Sunday's TV Week.


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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