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Tuned In: On TV, Dr. Laura softens shrill tone

Thursday, September 14, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Whatever your thoughts on Dr. Laura Schles- singer, her TV show aims to be a kinder, gentler affair than her haranguing radio program.

In fact, "Dr. Laura" the TV show softens the host considerably, making her far less the evil, hateful shrew detractors paint her as being.

Still, it's hard not to chuckle when the opening credits begin and words like "character," "morality," "love," "hope," "trust" and "tolerance" race across the screen. Tolerance? That's not the way gays and lesbians protesting some of Dr. Laura's statements see it.

While I don't agree with her comments about gays, some of her other moralizing is on target. People are more selfish today, putting their own desires ahead of their children. And they do fail to take responsibility.

So perhaps some preaching, teaching and nagging is in order. I'm just not sure Dr. Laura, with her brash, all-knowing air of superiority, is the person for the job.

"Dr. Laura" (11 a.m. weekdays on WPXI) is pretty much a standard talk show with a topic for each hour ("Teens and Drugs" on Monday, "When Is an Affair an Affair?" on Tuesday). The first two installments showed the host to be surprisingly effective on TV, giving viewers expressive grimaces to accompany her verbal cluck-clucking.

So quick to cut listeners off and berate and belittle on her radio show, Dr. Laura is a better listener on TV. She still cuts people off, just not as quickly. But when she fails to get a straight answer to her questions, she frustratingly doesn't always follow up.

Of local note, she quoted Sen. Rick Santorum on Tuesday's show about affairs. She repeated a story she had heard him tell about a man who stuck by his wife even after she developed Alzheimer's disease.

Monday's show on teens and drugs never addressed the issue of legalization, and one Dr. Laura foray into the audience was disturbing, not only because of what an audience member said, but because of Dr. Laura's reaction.

The man said if he found his daughter doing drugs, "I'd probably have to go upside her head," which prompted Dr. Laura to laugh. Maybe she thought he was kidding, but he continued seriously -- and she continued to laugh. "After she's not hurting anymore from the physical thing I just did to her, we'd talk and get some help and she'd get back on the right path."

Spanking is one thing, but does Dr. Laura really condone hitting "upside the head?"

Of course, any "Dr. Laura" discussion is probably moot if early national ratings are any indication. So far, they're not so good. With national advertisers defecting left and right, "Dr. Laura" comes stocked with commercials for Anne Murray records and technical schools, and loads of public service announcements.

Dr. Laura has defeated herself by becoming a polarizing figure, and that's too bad. America could use a dose of morality, but the sometimes offensive, often shrill voice of Dr. Laura won't do the trick.

In the end, an opportunity for consensus-building on issues of morality in America -- or the lack thereof -- disappears amid charges and counter charges. Everyone loses.

RERUN REMINDER: Pittsburgh viewers who missed part of May's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" season finale when storms knocked WCWB off the air can finally catch it at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Also, Showtime's "Beggars & Choosers" goes into reruns next week (along with "Resurrection Blvd." and "Soul Food"). They'll all return in January with new episodes.

WNPA UNDER KDKA CONTROL: As expected, the CBS-Viacom merger has led to the merging of operations for stations in six duopoly markets. In Pittsburgh, that means WNPA (owned by Viacom before the merger) will be consolidated with KDKA (owned by CBS before the merger).

A CBS press release announced KDKA general manager Gary Cozen will have oversight of WNPA with the staff and facilities of WNPA moving into KDKA headquarters at One Gateway Center. (Cozen will no longer be associated with the Detroit CBS affiliate, which he's overseen since November 1998.)

WNPA, run by general sales manager/station manager Michael Wolff, currently has offices in the First & Market building at 100 First Ave. Programming decisions for WNPA have been made out of the UPN affiliate in Philadelphia.

Sales operations of both stations will report to Cozen, while Wolff will continue as general sales manager for WNPA. KDKA eventually will take over programming functions for WNPA.

"ON Q" TIE-INS: In its first week back from summer hiatus, WQED's "On Q" offered two reports by Michael Bartley that tied into the PBS program "On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying."

Bartley profiled two area residents who are dying, asking them what choices they've made about how they want to die. Both pieces, which ran for more than six minutes each, showed the sadness of these situations, but also depicted how the people involved took charge of their fates.

The phrase "on our own terms" was used a bit too frequently in Tuesday night's piece (we get the connection already!), but it's smart for "On Q" to localize Moyers' important national program in some way.

Thankfully, Bartley's reports didn't come off like the time-wasting, cheesy network tie-ins commercial stations often run.

TV NEWS AND POP CULTURE: Many TV news folks are out of the loop when it comes to pop culture. Generally, that's fine. Their jobs require them to be more knowledgeable about local government and politics.

But when they have to do a story about popular entertainment, mistakes can happen.

Earlier this week, KDKA-TV reported on a local girl who got to go backstage at a Britney Spears concert in Florida. Reporter Mary Berecky brought up the issue of Spears' outfit at the MTV Video Music Awards last week, and a clip played that was tagged "Last Thursday," the day of the Video Music Awards.

But the clip showed Spears in a less revealing outfit than the "Look Ma, I'm a Vegas dancer" number she wore for the MTV show.

The video, which could have been from her concert here this summer, definitely wasn't from her performance last Thursday in New York.

It's a minor lapse, but it's the kind of mistake that subtly whispers "out of touch."

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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