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Tuned In: It's male anchors' turn to speak their minds on 'AgeWise'

Thursday, September 28, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Turns out girl talk and guy talk isn't that different, at least when it comes to TV news anchors.

In May, when Eleanor Schano had Pittsburgh's top female anchors as her guests for two editions of WQED's "AgeWise," there was much discussion of the local news business, children, hair styles and how aging affects a career in TV news.

For two new installments with the male anchors of Pittsburgh's late newscasts the topics were ... pretty much the same.

Prior to the taping last Friday, there was much fussing with hair, as WPXI's David Johnson borrowed a brush from KDKA's Ken Rice.

"I'm not any better looking, but I feel very special," Johnson said, returning the brush to Rice.

The two got along like old school chums, pretending to crowd one another out of a shot once they got onto the "AgeWise" set. They were joined by WTAE's Mike Clark and WPGH's Jay Harris, who wore shorts and a leg brace due to an injury he suffered while playing basketball.

The two new "AgeWise" programs with Pittsburgh's male anchors premiere this weekend and next (6:30 p.m. Saturday, repeats 12:30 p.m. Sunday). Watching the taping was a bit like seeing worlds collide -- you never see these guys in the same frame on your television set. The unusualness of the gathering wasn't lost on the participants.

"I can't get over the idea we're not here to cover a story. Otherwise, why are all these people here?" said Adam Lynch, the retired WTAE anchor invited by Schano to help conduct the discussion.

Before the taping began, Schano showed the anchors a promotional card from Channel 11 back in the late '60s or early '70s, when the station still used the call letters WIIC. Channel 11's on-air personalities were dressed in Pittsburgh Pirates uniforms with the headline "Go Get 'Em Bucs."

"Look at how cheesy the business used to be," Schano said.

"You said 'Used to be'?" Clark chimed in, followed by Rice, tongue firmly planted in cheek: "I'm glad the business isn't cheesy anymore."

Schano's chat with the anchorwomen a few months ago made for lively TV, and her conversation with the guys proved enlightening as well. The men weren't as revealing about themselves or their personal lives, but just seeing them outside of their buttoned-up "News Anchor" roles gives viewers a better glimpse of them as people.

When Schano pointed out none of the current anchors are natives of the area, Rice cheekily said, "Have you just outed me as [not having] the Hometown Advantage?"

Johnson revealed the reason for his ever-changing hair color this summer: Station executives thought he was getting too gray and asked him if he'd get it touched up. A hairdresser accidentally turned his hair black before he got it to its current color somewhere between jet black and Dan Rather gray.

During breaks in "AgeWise" segments, the anchors traded stories about anchors from Pittsburgh's past, most notably their on-air flubs, and chatted about the $1 million that former WPXI reporter Mike "I'm in YOUR corner!" Boguslawski is supposedly pulling down at KCBS in Los Angeles.

On the air, the men tried to trump one another with the birth weights of their children and spoke of their relationships with their co-anchors ("My co-anchor is nicer than your co-anchor," Rice mockingly taunted at one point).

They mostly agreed the business is not as much fun now as it was in the past, when pressure on the newsroom to be a profit center was less pronounced and when there were fewer newscasts and more time to have fun.

Rice predicted viewers will see further expansion of local news in the future, with evening newscasts starting at 4 p.m. as they do in some other markets. That leads us to ...



STILL MORE TV NEWS? While we're talking about the possibility of more local news, it may only be a matter of time before KDKA begins programming a 10 p.m. newscast on WNPA.

Now that the Viacom-CBS merger is complete and KDKA will be running WNPA, it would be easy "synergy" for KDKA to staff a 10 p.m. newscast on Pittsburgh's UPN affiliate (just as WPXI does a 10 p.m. news for cable outlet PCNC).

Prior to the Viacom-CBS merger, Viacom wasn't interested in news. The company canceled several unprofitable 10 p.m. newscasts across the country. But economies of scale make a KDKA-produced newscast on WNPA a good bet.

A call to a KDKA spokesman seeking comment was not returned.

I'm all for more competition, but I'd rather have a fresh voice in the market. A KDKA newscast on WNPA would have the same voice as a KDKA newscast on Channel 2, just as a PCNC newscast sounds the same as a WPXI newscast. If KDKA starts a late news on WNPA, I'd worry about it trampling the only other broadcast competition, WPGH's 10 p.m. alternative.



HORRIBLE NEWS: Sometimes viewers wonder how stations make their decisions, particularly when it comes to covering a story as horrible as the slaying of 11-year-old Scott C. Drake on the North Side. In this sad case, most stations referred to the boy's body as "mutilated" or "sexually mutilated."

WPXI news director Jennifer Rigby said her station approaches reports like the Drake killing on a case-by-case basis.

"It's not that I have any kind of written policy," Rigby said. "We just didn't feel we needed to reveal the gruesome details. We found a way to tell you what happened without, I think, getting too graphic."

KDKA news director Jeff Weissbart said "sexually mutilated" was as graphic as his station got.

"We felt at that point anyone really wondering what that would mean would understand," Weissbart said. "As we cover these stories, we, as managers, watch all the video and copy that goes on the air so we are consistent with whatever type of information is coming across."

Weissbart said KDKA tried to edit coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht's comments "in a way that gets his point across without being extremely graphic." Weissbart said it was important to allow Wecht to have his say about ritualistic aspects of the killing.

WPGH news director Tom Burke and WTAE news director Bob Longo both said they warned viewers before giving details of the slaying. Both news executives said they used sound bites of Wecht clinically describing specifics about the condition of the boy's body.

"On the one hand, we don't want to overly offend people -- not just offend, because I know we're going to offend a lot of people -- and at the same time, we don't want to sanitize the story to the degree that the horror is not evident to the viewer," Burke said.

Viewers get so desensitized to news stories about drunken driving crashes or deaths in fires, but when stations report specifics beyond what viewers are used to hearing, Burke said, the details sting.

"There is no good way to report this story," Burke said. "There is not a right answer how to report this, journalistically or ethically. In a perfect world, we'd never put any gore out there, we'd never have to talk about people dying in fires and accidents."



THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER ... LATE: On Oct. 7, PBS will broadcast "The Man Who Came to Dinner" live from Broadway starring Nathan Lane and Jean Smart. But Pittsburgh viewers won't see the telecast until 8 p.m. Oct. 14.

WQED will be one of two Top 30 market PBS stations in the country where the program will not air live.

Program director Chris Fennimore said WQED won't air the show live because the station made a commitment to broadcast a financial program with Jonathan Pond live from the station's studio.

"If there's any fault to be placed, it's with PBS for being so late in letting us know," Fennimore said.

He's not concerned about the tardiness of "The Man Who Came To Dinner."

"I'm not one of those people who sees the difference," Fennimore said. "It will be as if it's live, the same way 'Live From Lincoln Center' isn't live. To the viewer at home it will look exactly the same the next week except they can't call their friend in Oklahoma and say, 'How did you like the show?' "

Although I appreciate the complexities of programming a not-quite-a-network PBS member station, it makes it less of an event knowing a show's on tape.



CHANNEL 11 PROMO: WPXI has gone all out with its new Storm Team 11 promotions airing during NBC's Olympics coverage.

It's a slick spot with scenes of Channel 11 personalities in all sorts of inclement weather -- although most of it looks like special effects-created bad weather. In one scene, figures clad in Channel 11 rain gear run through some kind of precipitation in slow motion like they're heroes out of "ER" or "Third Watch."

The station also has some new gizmo called "Predictor," although what exactly it does the promo doesn't explain (from what I've seen during the news, it looks like a cloudcast).

"Now, at the first sign of severe weather, [chief meteorologist] Steve [Teeling] directs our Storm Team 11 crews to local neighborhoods just ahead of the storms," anchor David Johnson says. This must come as a shock to the station's assignment editors, who normally make such decisions.


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum .



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