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Tuned In: May sweeps bring out the local best and worst

Thursday, May 11, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV critic

Local TV stations are well into sweeps and their reports fall into three categories:

The Good

Happily, there were more reports that fit this description than usual.

WTAE's Paul Van Osdol reported on a flap in Elizabeth over speed traps and federal grant money. It was a balanced report that showed multiple opinions on the speed traps and gave insight into behind-the-scenes politics. Best of all, viewers weren't subjected to video of a camera crew chasing after an unsuspecting citizen.

Dr. Mike Rosen reported for WPXI on advances in treating paraplegics using implanted electrodes. It was an informative report on medical advances, making it unlike so many sweeps features that preach common sense.

After Richard Baumhammers' arrest, KDKA's Andy Sheehan reported on myths about the mentally ill and the lack of resources that constrain some doctors who treat mentally ill patients. Sheehan's report shed light on a subject that's often ignored, leaving stereotypes to fester.

The Bad

"Bad" is probably a misnomer. "Lame" is more apropos.

WPGH, after ignoring sweeps in the past, has embarked on a couple of promotable features this month. The first -- reporting on and then running the names of Pittsburghers with unclaimed property and money in the state treasurer's office -- was not new and smacks of a way to run a contest (entice viewers with the promise of possibly winning easy money) without the station's having to empty its own pockets.

In the second, "Diet Dangers," Katie Sesny reported that fad pills that are promised to block fat may not have any effect or may have a negative effect. But why did one shot focus on a nutrition store banner for Vitamin E, which, so far as I know, isn't a diet drug?

WPXI's Peggy Finnegan got pressed into duty for a live shot on the 11 p.m. news Monday for the revelatory news that -- and I hope you're sitting down for this -- it's safer in the suburbs than in the city. Shocking, I know. The report was based on data from something called "Crime Cast," which didn't take into account circumstances -- walking in a Three Rivers Stadium parking lot during the day among a crowd or in the dark of night alone -- only an address. This story seemed chosen more for its promotional potential ("How safe are you?") than its ability to impart worthwhile information.

The Ugly

What is it with WTAE's Monday night sweeps features? In February, the station offered a report on Playgirl model "Sexy Eddie," and the promos were more tawdry than the report itself.

Same thing this past Monday with a Nina Pineda report on "Women Who Cheat." The report showed blurred footage of a cheating couple making out in a car and expounded on the different reasons men and women cheat. Another example of promotional hype taking precedence.

Although not a sweeps piece, WPGH, WPXI and WTAE reported this week that a local boy received 1,100 stitches following a pit bull attack. Those reports aired after the Associated Press issued a correction with a statement from a Children's Hospital spokeswoman that the boy received just 11 stitches.

WHEN AN "EXCLUSIVE" IS NOT: Last week, in an introduction to a story about a woman who helped police solve a hit-and-run case, KDKA's Stacy Smith said that "she talked exclusively with Bob Allen."

Unless "exclusive" has taken on a new meaning, the story didn't fit the bill. Just a few minutes earlier the same woman was interviewed on WPXI.

This is why it's pointless for stations to claim "exclusives." If a station is wrong, it looks foolish.

"WEST WING" REALITY? I had the opportunity to visit the real West Wing last month at the White House (a friend of a friend works in the Old Executive Office Building next door and has access).

Interesting as it was from a pure, wow-this-is-the-White-House standpoint, I was most eager to compare the real thing to the set of NBC's "The West Wing," which I saw in January, but here's what I could piece together:

The Roosevelt Room on "West Wing" has too many glass-paneled doors and windows, although its design is pretty accurate (including the placement of several flags).

The press room on "West Wing" is a dead ringer, although it's much smaller in the real White House than it appears on the TV show or on the nightly news.

The offices where Sam (Rob Lowe) and Toby (Richard Schiff) work on "West Wing" don't exist in the White House, or if they do, they're not adjacent to a windowed bullpen. In the real White House, there's no corral of offices behind glass walls near the Oval Office.

The "West Wing" set has a Mural Room where the Cabinet Room is located in the real White House, although it could be that they redress the "West Wing" set depending on the scene.

P.S. -- A friend sent this link to a funny Web site, www.mindspring.com/~slgorman/, dedicated to hating the "West Wing" character Mandy (Moira Kelly).

Fear not: I don't think Mandy will roam the "West Wing" halls much longer.

OUTCOME: My "Homefront" crusade didn't do much for TV Land's ratings. The 48-hour marathon April 29-30 was the lowest rated in recent months. I can understand how a "China Beach" marathon might draw more viewers, but "Emergency"?

TV Land deserves a big thank-you for putting "Homefront" back on the air (it currently airs weekdays at noon), although I wish the network hadn't steamrolled "Homefront's" end-credit newsreels with programming announcement voice-overs.

Oh, well, on to the next crusade. Help me choose another old show to get back on the air. "Freaks and Geeks" is excluded because an announcement about that show's cable afterlife will probably be made soon.

Right now I'm thinking about trying to bring back the 1997-98 ABC drama "Nothing Sacred."

Any other suggestions?

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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