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Tuned In: 'Live trucks' rolling into local news battle

Thursday, August 17, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

First there were chopper wars. Then weather wars. Now we have "live truck" battles.

WPXI marched into battle with its Mobile News Cam in recent weeks and WTAE countered with a Mobile Action Cam.

WTAE's Sam Merrill introduced the "brand spanking new" vehicle to viewers during a morning newscast last week, but its stay in Pittsburgh proved short-lived. The truck, borrowed from WTAE's sister station in Boston and still bearing a Massachusetts license plate, returned to the city it came from.

"That's misleading their viewers," said WPXI news director Jennifer Rigby. "If you toss to it and say it's 'brand spanking new,' to me it's saying you'll see it regularly. It certainly led me to believe they purchased it."

WTAE news director Bob Longo denied WTAE was trying to trick viewers or blunt the premiere of WPXI's new vehicle.

"We weren't deceptive, we didn't put a promo on the air, we were just saying we have this new technology, check it out," Longo said. "We had talked to WCVB [the Boston station] two months prior and they couldn't get it to us until then. I legitimately wanted to bring it in and see if we could use it here."

Sniping aside, what viewers have seen of Channel 11's Mobile News Cam (a souped-up Ford Expedition) are shots from lipstick-sized cameras pointed out the front and back of the truck and one inside aimed at the passenger seat, where a reporter sits.

The Mobile News Cam makes it possible to do live shots while the truck is moving because it doesn't have to extend a mast holding an antenna.

The digital Mobile News Cam sends out its signal in a way that allows the station to broadcast live from sites in Downtown Pittsburgh, particularly along Grant Street, that it couldn't in the past, said Rick Minutello, WPXI news operation director. (For advanced engineers: Traditional live trucks send signals in a straight line that could be blocked by buildings and hills, the Mobile News Cam sends out a circular signal intended to bounce off buildings).

Because the new truck allows Channel 11 to go live while the vehicle is moving, the station has already used it for live reports on traffic detours. News director Rigby said WPXI will use the truck in the winter for reports on road conditions. No more reporter standing in a snow-bank; now live reports can check out the slickness of various roadways -- within a distance from the station.

The Mobile News Cam has a 9-mile range from the Fineview station that, when the truck is stationary, can be amplified to 26 miles on a small mast that rises to 12 feet off the ground. Traditional live truck antennas reach more than 40 feet, which can be a hazard due to power lines.

For now, Channel 11 has the market cornered on this new gadget. WTAE's Longo said he intends to buy a Mobile Action Cam next year, but it's a big investment. Live trucks typically cost more than $200,000.

"I definitely think it's the future, but it's not the present, not yet," Longo said. "I think we need to wait for the technology to catch up. Realistically, how many times can you drive around and use a live shot?"

COMMERCIAL CLAIMS: In recent spots WTAE says it's "taking action" for viewers by reducing the number of commercials in newscasts. News director Longo said viewer feedback led the station to decrease the amount of commercial time in several newscasts for a total of 35 minutes less commercial time in newscasts each week.

That includes one minute and 45 seconds of ads taken out of the 5 p.m. hour, one minute and 30 seconds out of the 6 p.m. half-hour and one minute and 40 seconds out of the 11 p.m. news.

"We got thousands of e-mails and phone calls [since starting the 'Taking Action 4 You' campaign] and there were some real standouts, and at the top of the list was 'too many commercials on TV, not enough time for the news,' " Longo said. "We looked, and all three of the network affiliates did about the same amount of time [of news and commercials] and we went back and redid all our newscasts."

Percentage-wise, Longo said the most time came out of the 5 p.m. hour. I did my own timing once for each station's 5 p.m. news -- insiders tell me the amount of commercial time does not change from day-to-day -- and found WTAE had the most time devoted to news and promotions for what's ahead. WPXI had the second-most amount of time devoted to news and KDKA ranked third.

Channel 11 claims fewer commercials at 11 p.m. as part of its "11-minute" advantage. That's true at the start of the newscast, but not overall. On Tuesday night at 11, WPXI had the lengthiest "A block" (the first chunk of news time before the first commercial) clocking in at 14 minutes, but in total the station spent more time on ads than either of its competitors.

KDKA spent the least time on ads at 11 p.m., followed by WTAE. Overall, the differences among the stations in time spent on commercials was much closer at 11 than at 5 p.m.

WINNING NEW PROMO: Channel 2 seems to be trying a new tact in its promotions, introducing a warm and cuddly spot that's far different from the barking announcer boasting about weather and condemning contests.

Instead, KDKA is taking a kinder, gentler approach in a spot that features sappy singers warbling, "I see it all, I see the news," as filmed images of laughing anchors fill the screen.

Do I truly believe in this happy fantasy land, where all is right with the world? Of course not. But I'm a sucker for it anyway. This new spot is a refreshing change and brings to mind the "America's First Family" music video that airs after the "Today" show. I'd much rather see stations accentuate the positive than attack one another.

But somebody should go one more step. Some station needs to be bold enough to use humor in promos again. Then viewers would really get a treat.

ANOTHER FOX DISAPPOINTMENT: Can I express shock that Fox canceled "American High," a documentary series that treated real teen-agers with respect? No. From the start it was too smart for a broadcast network and hit too close to home to draw hordes of teen viewers. For a reality show, it was too real. And no one got voted out of high school.

So I can't express shock. But I can express dismay, especially with the way the series was mishandled. Whose bright idea was it to schedule "American High" opposite The WB's "Young Americans"? "American High" was further doomed when CBS moved the one-hour, live "Big Brother" to the 9 p.m. Wednesday time slot opposite "High."

After just two outings, Fox gave up. True, the ratings were awful, but so was the time slot. The show, however, was excellent.

Probably too good for Fox, which has squandered its one-time reputation as a leader in quality innovative programming, opting instead for dreck like "When Animals Attack" and "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" The American viewing public bears equal blame for making these shows hits and "American High" a flop.

Earlier this week, a Fox spokesman had said "American High" would return to the network. Now that's no longer the plan. Instead, the series may migrate to sister network Fox Family Channel.

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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