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Tuned In: Veteran news anchors deserve respect, tenure

Thursday, April 06, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Remember the cheesy '70s sci-fi film "Logan's Run"? In the 23rd century, people faced a life of pleasure until they turned 30. Then it was execution time.

In 2000, TV news anchors face a similar situation. There's a more nebulous age for the death of their career, but it's well below the typical person's retirement age.

Yet veteran news anchors have been on the air long enough to gain the trust of viewers. Their experience, composure and knowledge puts viewers at ease when danger threatens.

When I moved here almost two years ago I was surprised to find no real dean of broadcasting. I was a few years too late for the era of Bill Burns, Paul Long and Don Cannon (now back in a lower profile). But there are veteran Pittsburgh anchors who will continue to mature into these roles -- if they're given the chance.

Advertisers demand young viewers and station executives seem to conclude that getting that audience necessitates young faces at the anchor desk (the notion that younger viewers will only watch younger anchors doesn't wash with me).

I'm the last person who would begrudge a young person a good job, but fear of an older demographic shouldn't prompt stations to diminish the role of a -- gasp! -- middle-aged anchor. Once our elders were respected; now they're seen as a liability in the ratings.

Thinking about this makes me wonder what will happen to KDKA's Stacy Smith and WTAE's Sally Wiggin. I'd add WPXI's David Johnson to the mix, but Channel 11 seems to value the stable pairing of Johnson with Peggy Finnegan. They've anchored together for more than 10 years and Channel 11's ratings are on the rise.

But what of Smith and Wiggin? They're both talented anchors, and although they may be older than some of the more recent hires in town, it's nowhere near time for them to be whisked away to the Old Anchors Home.

At the moment, Wiggin seems safe, but aging news personnel (especially women) get put out to pasture even when they're still doing good work. Look no further than KDKA's treatment of Patti Burns and, more recently, Smith. He was taken off the 11 p.m. news last summer and moved to noon, Burns' last stop before she got the boot. What will become of Smith the next time his contract is up for renewal in a couple of years?

KDKA would be smart to keep him, but if the station lets him go, WTAE should snag him (after the no-compete period expires, of course). Pairing Smith with Wiggin would send an immediate message to viewers: Experience matters.

NICE WORK: KDKA's coverage of the Pirates' rained-out home opener Monday at 5 p.m. was exemplary.

Ken Rice anchored from Three Rivers Stadium and introduced clips of old footage. John Steigerwald brought back a report from 1987 about Forbes Field. This smart use of archival footage made for better television than the typical sound bites from fans ("We're happy to be here," "We wouldn't miss it for the world," etc.)

WPXI's Stacia Erdos offered an informative report on Tuesday about how to get voters out to the polls, including online voting, national primaries and regional primaries. It was a good introductory report. I hope Channel 11 will explore the issue further.

And kudos to WTAE's Kristine Sorensen, who found some articulate students to speak about the Peters Township teachers strike. It's easy to interview teachers and government officials. Getting teens to talk seriously -- and in full sentences -- is a greater challenge.

GONE: Channel 4 Westmoreland County bureau reporter T.J. Winick has left the station. He's now "working on some different projects in television" in Boston, but he wouldn't say what they are. No word on a replacement.

TEASES: My dictionary defines a tease as "a short scene or highlight shown at the beginning of a film or television show to engage the audience's attention."

In recent weeks Channel 11 teases did exactly the opposite. I'm sure they also managed to confirm the shallowness of TV news in the minds of viewers who already roll their eyes at "Coverage You Can Count On" and the like (I haven't caught any really lame teases on Channel 2 or Channel 4 recently).

The winners -- or losers?

"Tonight, Dorito the donkey walks again!"

"A six-foot-tall Mr. Potato Head, tonight at 11!"

"The amazing swearing bird, tonight at 11!"

If someone had told me about these I would have thought they were making an over-the-top parody. Sadly, I would have been wrong.

APPROPRIATE ENDING: "Sports Night" concluded its second season Tuesday with the company the characters work for on the block. "We're for sale!?!" Dana (Felicity Huffman) said.

And so is "Sports Night."

ABC, which didn't send critics review tapes of the season finale (a sure sign of the network throwing in the towel), did little to promote the last episode. It's possible another network -- NBC? HBO? -- will buy the rights to air the series, which is produced by ABC sister company Touchstone Television.

In another moment of irony, WTAE shrank the screen during one scene of "Sports Night" to get results from the elections on the air. The shrinkage cut off the head of Jeremy (Joshua Malina) just as he talked to Casey (Peter Krause) about "running around like chickens with our heads cut off."

"B5" TO SCI-FI: The Sci-Fi Channel has acquired the rights to the stellar sci-fi soap "Babylon 5" and four made-for-cable movies that originally aired on TNT. The five-year series will air on Sci-Fi weeknights at 7 p.m. beginning Sept. 25.

ANOTHER WB WITCH: Willow on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the sisters on "Charmed" won't be the only witches casting spells on The WB next fall. The network announced yesterday it has acquired "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" from ABC, ordering two more seasons of the 4-year-old series. "Sabrina" is expected to air on The WB on Fridays, the same night it airs now on ABC.

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

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