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Fox's 10 p.m. news racks up ratings

Thursday, August 31, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

I tried to avoid it. I really did. But in my post-"Survivor" depression, there was no way to escape the grip of reality TV. Whether it's news or entertainment programming, reality continues to dominate this week's column.

RATINGS REALLY UP: The July sweeps showed a much-deserved ratings upturn for Fox's 10 p.m. newscast. WPGH's news ratings jumped from a 3.1 rating (percentage of TV households) and 5 share (percentage of sets in use) in May to a 3.8 rating/6 share in July.

Typically, ratings for a 10 p.m. newscast go up in the summer as network competition lessens with the onslaught of summer reruns; viewers are more likely to try stations they don't usually watch. Even more importantly, WPGH's July 2000 ratings were up from July 1999, when the station drew a 3.4 rating/5 share.

WPGH earned the ratings improvement, and news director Tom Burke and assistant news director John Poister deserve much of the credit. They've made "The Ten O'Clock News" a dependable wrap-up of the day's news. It's also the least gimmicky newscast in town (except for the sweeps features that unfortunately crept into the newscast this past May).

Jay Harris has proved a welcome replacement for John Huck, and I've really grown to admire meteorologist Matt Morano. I get the sense he cares about the weather a lot more than some forecasters in town.

It's not perfect. The "Positively Pittsburgh" segment too often comes off as too hometown cheerleaderish for my taste. And the newscast's look isn't as polished as other stations in town. But at its root, the Fox 10 p.m. news offers decent, professional broadcast journalism. It's a welcome alternative, and I'm glad to see WPGH getting the ratings credit it deserves.

REAL GOOD WEB SITE USE: Earlier this month when WTAE sent anchor Scott Baker to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, news director Bob Longo asked Baker to file Web-exclusive dispatches.

Baker's diary entries were enjoyable, stream-of-consciousness writings. These weren't news reports, rather impressions of the convention, its stars and the media doings behind the scenes. It's not the kind of details a TV station would find room for on the air, but by putting Baker's musings on its Web site, Channel 4 gave Web surfers a more personal view of the convention and gave one of its anchors a creative outlet. A win-win scenario. Plus, viewers are intrigued by local TV personalities, and Web journals by local reporters connect viewers to the people they watch on TV.

I often hear viewers complain about incomplete TV news stories that refer viewers to a station's Web site for details. That's a disservice to viewers. But if stations create original Web content such as Baker's convention diary, they can drive traffic to their Web sites without compromising the content of televised news reports.

REALLY GONE: Jim Byrne, WTAE's director of broadcast operations for the past year and a half, landed a job as director of programming and creative services at WBDC, the Washington, D.C., affiliate of The WB network.

For Byrne, who started work in Washington this week, it's a homecoming: He grew up in Silver Spring, Md.

WTAE general manager Jim Hefner said Byrne won't be replaced. Rather, his duties will be spread among personnel in several different departments.

REALLY MISSING "SURVIVOR": Thank goodness the "Survivor" soundtrack came out this week. Otherwise I'd be really bumming. At least I can listen to the tracks such as "Island Council" and "Tally the Vote" and remember Sue's stinging tirade in the final episode or Rudy's addled "I dunno."

Sigh. Those were the days.

Chris Ender, CBS senior vice president of communications, called the "Survivor" phenomenon "one of those cosmic events that spawned a frenzy. ... I'm still in disbelief. It leaves me shaking my head."

When was the last time a CBS publicist could say that? "Ladies Man" this was not.

Those vying for one of 16 spots on "Survivor: The Australian Outback" have been whittled down to 800 from 49,000 applicants, Ender said. (The first "Survivor" generated fewer than 7,000 applications). A round of hush-hush call-back interviews were held last week at KDKA-TV for castaway hopefuls from the region.

CBS will know the identities of the next "Survivor" cast by late September (contestants will head for Australia in October to begin production), but Ender said the network hasn't decided when it will announce their names. CBS has concerns about the media frenzy that's likely to bubble up around families of the contestants.

REALLY ROUGHING IT: If you thought the cast of CBS's "Survivor" had it rough, check out BBC America's "Castaway 2000" (8 p.m. Sept. 11). After getting 4,000 applications, the BBC sent 28 adults and eight children to a cold, wind-swept Scottish island for a year. No tribal council. No one voted off the island. And no prize.

BBC America, available to digital cable subscribers, will air the first four episodes Sept. 11 to 14. These installments look at the selection process and lead up to New Year's Day 2000, when the castaways began living on the island. Additional segments chronicling their first three months will air this fall.

"REAL WORLD" IN NEW YORK ... AGAIN: MTV's "The Real World" will return to Manhattan for its 10th season, Daily Variety reported yesterday. The first season of the series filmed there, too.

MTV also ordered an 11th season to begin production in May 2001 for premiere in January 2002. "Real World" has debuted only in the summer. No location for season No. 11 has been chosen.

TRUE "CONFESSIONS": As much as I enjoyed "Survivor," I'm not happy to see it lead to Court TV's "Confessions," a half-hour program featuring the videotaped confessions of killers recorded by the Manhattan district attorney's office.

There are certainly valid arguments for why "Survivor" is bad for the world -- it taught that manipulation and divisiveness triumphs over well-balanced people who work hard and try to form friendships -- but "Confessions" (10 p.m. Sept. 10) is far worse. It exploits killers, giving them undeserved celebrity. It harasses the families of victims, allowing the world to hear details of how their loved ones died.

Sensing they might catch flak (and they did, first in The New York Times last week), Court TV begins "Confessions" with a mea culpa of sorts: "Disturbing as they are, confessions provide a rare glimpse into a killer's mind."

Not quite. Of the three killers in the first episode, there's no explanation of why they killed. No context. No insights. They just come off as disturbed, sick murderers. This week Court TV decided to pair the first episode of "Confessions" with a round-table discussion of the show's content.

Regardless, "Confessions" is reality TV we can do without.

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 TV Forum .

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