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Tuned In: Solid reporting doesn't assure viewers, ratings

Thursday, June 22, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV editor

Previously on Tuned In ...

Although it's still dominant in households at noon and 6 p.m., ratings for KDKA-TV have slipped in recent years, while ratings for WPXI have steadily grown.

Now it's time to look for possible reasons.

Why is venerable news operation KDKA-TV fading, while once-distant third-place WPXI is coming on strong? And where does WTAE fit into all this?

There's no easy answer and nothing definitive. As always, this column represents one guy's opinion.

First off, the rise or fall of a station has little to do with the quality of its newscasts. You can put on a newscast with the most journalistic integrity in the world, but that's no guarantee viewers will watch. Viewers will happily watch junk. The prime-time ratings for, say, the comparatively dumb, decently rated "Walker, Texas Ranger" and the smart, low-rated "Freaks and Geeks" bear that out.

Quality has some bearing in this discussion but not a lot. More than anything, it's a matter of image and how the stations promote their news offerings.

KDKA continues to have a solid group of reporters and anchors on staff. And it remains the station least likely to do sensational, over-the-top reports.

So why would viewers turn away from the granddaddy of TV news? Station executives will point to all sorts of reasons: the influence of contests and lead-ins are among their favorites. To be sure, those variables have an effect, but they're not new in the two years that KDKA has been falling and WPXI climbing.

Simply put, WPXI has improved. The station has made several smart hires for on-air positions, especially morning anchor Newlin Archinal. WPXI seems to have made a concerted effort to hire minorities, so the makeup of its staff better reflects the community. And the station's sweeps features, although sometimes still tacky and without news value (those worthless Crimecast-inspired reports last month), don't seem quite so bad compared to promos for recent WTAE sweeps stories. (I'm thinking particularly of February's "Sexy Eddie" and May's "Women Who Cheat.")

Most importantly, Channel 11 has learned to think long-term, and in the long run, stability wins the race. The pairing of Peggy Finnegan and David Johnson is the longest-lasting anchor team in town. Although WPXI's morning crew has been in place for only a year, it's already the market veteran.

KDKA connected with viewers when it took on the "Hometown Advantage" slogan, but now some viewers are sick of it. Even KDKA has tiptoed away from the "you must be born here to report here" dogma of past spots. In the newest ad, the announcer says it's not so much about being a native as it is important to have been here long enough to develop sources and know the area.

While Channel 11 simply touts its anchors and promises "coverage you can count on," using its own well-worn slogan, it doesn't take shots at the competition. Both KDKA and WTAE have traded barbs with one another in on-air promotional spots, while WPXI sits out the name-calling and rides a wave to the top.

KDKA offers the most straightforward local TV newscasts, but its image has taken a licking because the station acts like a bully rather than a leader. I'm convinced that is KDKA's biggest problem.

At some point KDKA decided it's not good enough to be No. 1, it had to be the only one. Why behave like Burger King if you're already the McDonald's of local TV? Too often KDKA acts like a political candidate addicted to negative campaigning. My guess is viewers are sick of it, and continued promotional arrogance (distinct from typical promotional boasting) will be the station's undoing.

Where does WTAE fit into all this? Honestly, I'm not sure. Channel 4's ratings over the past two years have been inconsistent. It seems to be a station in search of an identity, a signature style.

If you have your own thoughts on our local stations, write or e-mail me and I may include viewer reaction in a future column.

BABY WATCH: Michelle Wright gave birth last Friday to her second child, Allison Nicole, who weighed in at 8 pounds, 1 ounce. Mom and baby returned home from the hospital Tuesday.

"Everybody's fine," said a WTAE spokeswoman of Wright, her new daughter, husband Michael and son Zachary.

The baby wave seems to be subsiding at WTAE. Now it's WPGH's turn. Reporter Cyndy McGrath is due early next month, and weekend anchor Katie Sesny will follow in September.

MORE CONTROL: AT&T digital cable customers in the city of Pittsburgh and northern suburbs may notice some enhancements to the company's TV Guide on-screen programming menu, beginning today. The same changes will take effect for other subscribers Tuesday.

Improvements to the parental control feature allow parents not only to block out access to adult programming -- now they can remove the titles of the films as well. There will also be more complete descriptions of TV shows and a three-day local weather forecast.

DOMAIN NAME GAME: WPXI is the first local TV station to snap up one of the new Internet Web addresses ending in .tv to use as wpxi.tv.

dotTV Corp. unveiled its strategy last month when it acquired the ".tv" top-level domain from the government of Tuvalu, a small Pacific island nation. The company became interested in ".tv" because so many ".com" addresses were taken.

dotTV is auctioning off domain names on its Web site, www.tv. WPXI general manager John Howell said the station was offered the site free of charge (it's not working yet but will point to RealPittsburgh.com), but sites currently up for bid range in price from $2,500 (for nike.tv) to $101,000 (net.tv).

DEMISE OF "SPORTS NIGHT": This week's news that HBO won't be picking up "Sports Night" means the show is over. Too bad, too. Although "Sports Night" was frequently uneven, there were still many stories to tell, most notably the relationship between Dana and Casey.

Perhaps reruns will end up on TV Land. After all, the cable network gave "Sports Night" its first "Future Classic" award during the show's first season.

LOVING LIVIA: Yeah, we hated Livia Soprano, but we loved to hate her.

News that actress Nancy Marchand, who played Livia, died Sunday probably hit "Sopranos" fans hard. I was bummed when I heard.

Surely creator David Chase will opt to kill off Livia rather than recast the role. That means no more of Livia's self-pity, no more plots against Tony, no more laughing when he trips down the stairs. Her particular brand of evil will be missed.

Although it would be easy to proclaim "The Sopranos" kaput without Livia, Marchand's death could propel the series in a new direction. Livia's death and lack of reconciliation with Tony will no doubt haunt him into the future. Plus, who knows what amoral plans she may have put in motion before her demise.

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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