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Tuned In: 'Sweeps' looks at dirt behind audience count

Thursday, November 02, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Just in time for the first day of November sweeps, A&E's "Investigative Reports" (10 tonight) offers a fascinating look at one station's escapades during May's audience measurement period.

"Hype and Glory: Sweeps Month" goes behind the scenes at KCAL, an independent station in Los Angeles. The hour includes commentary from Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg, but it's mostly unnecessary. The people who work at KCAL pretty much indict the lowest-common-denominator nature of sweeps reports on their own.

When a high-speed highway chase breaks out, the station sends its helicopter to catch up.

"What a sad commentary that we're sitting here waiting for a chase," says the station's assistant news director.

Whatever the excesses of Pittsburgh TV news, our stations don't go overboard the way stations do in L.A., an even more competitive market.

"It's like taking a crazy person and then giving him speed on top of it," Rosenberg says. "That is what you get during sweeps."

Admissions from the newsroom staff surprised me:

"There's a touch of the tawdry, sexplicitly speaking," says veteran anchor Jerry Dunphy. "I'd like to make it a lot better than it is."

"We sometimes appeal to some very base instincts," says a special projects producer. "Sex and tragedy, those are the makings of a great sweeps piece."

KCAL covers sex with a live report from a Magic Mountain roller coaster. The story is about a study that suggests the body's chemical reaction during sex is similar to its reaction when riding a roller coaster.

"Right now people don't respect television news much," says the special projects producer, "and I don't blame them."

And to think I worry about being too harsh in my critiques of local news.

NEW TO WTAE: Channel 4 has found a replacement for departed weathercaster Mike Stone. Donald Schwenneker, currently chief meteorologist at WTAJ in Altoona, will join WTAE as weekend morning and evening forecaster Nov. 25.

He graduated from Drake University with a degree in broadcast journalism, and he has a degree in broadcast meteorology from Mississippi State University.

POLITICAL FOES REUNITED: Cyril Wecht and Jim Roddey, who were battling a year ago this week for the Allegheny County executive post, are expected to appear together this weekend on WQED's "AgeWise" (6:30 p.m. Saturday, 12:30 p.m. Sunday).

SECOND THOUGHTS: A month into the 2000-2001 television season, enough episodes of new series have aired to clarify, and in some cases change, my original impressions. Here are some quick takes:

"Ed" (8 p.m. Sunday, NBC) -- Remains a gem. Some parents complained to me about sex talk in the pilot, and sweet as it is, the show may not always be family appropriate. But it remains a refreshingly upbeat adult drama.

"Hype" (9:30 p.m. Sunday, The WB) -- Crude, obnoxious and generally not that funny, this sketch comedy showed some signs of life with this week's "Sex and the City" parody. More often, "Hype" cries out for better writing.

"Deadline" -- NBC canceled the newspaper drama after Monday's low-rated episode. It's just as well. Despite a high caliber cast, "Deadline" had preposterous notions about how newspaper journalists behave. Stories about a managing editor harboring a fugitive and a reporter kissing an interview subject are not the norm in this business.

"Dark Angel" (9 p.m. Tuesday, Fox) -- Continues to bore me. Why watch "Dark Angel" when the far more entertaining "Angel" airs at the same time on The WB?

"Bette" (8 p.m. Wednesday, CBS) -- Her Lucille Ball shtick is getting tiresome already. The lower rated, subtler "Welcome to New York" is funnier and more original.

"Gideon's Crossing" (10 p.m. Wednesday, ABC) -- It's like watching two different series: The Andre Braugher program and a separate show about everyone else at this Boston teaching hospital. Rarely does Braugher interact with the supporting cast. It's usually just scenes of him and a dying guest star of the week, which doesn't help spur character development.

"Gilmore Girls" (8 p.m. today, The WB) -- After weeks of ratings declines, this funny, multigenerational family drama finally saw an uptick in viewership last week. "Gilmore Girls" can sometimes be overly caustic, but generally it's a treat teens can watch with their parents.

"CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (9 p.m. tomorrow, CBS) -- This fall's surprise hit continues to spin smart stories while slowly evolving its characters, which makes "CSI" much improved since its rudderless pilot episode.

"The District" (10 p.m. Saturday, CBS) -- Though many critics were quick to slam this Washington, D.C.-set police drama, I'm not surprised viewers have flocked to it. Charismatic Craig T. Nelson carries "The District" with nobility and charm.

GETTING THE NOD: CBS has given full season orders to "Bette," "CSI," "The District," "The Fugitive" and "Yes, Dear." The WB has done the same for freshman sitcom "Nikki."

NBC has picked up nine additional episodes of "Ed," which faces its stiffest competition yet this weekend when "The Simpsons" and "Malcolm in the Middle" return.

Don't be surprised if "Ed" moves to another night in the future. Wednesday at 8 p.m. makes sense. The hopeful nature of "Ed" would blend well with the idealistic "West Wing." But there's one catch: Current time-slot occupant "Titans" is a favorite of NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier. Despite low ratings for "Titans," Ancier may still hold out hope for the sinfully boring soap.

CHANNEL SURFING: The WB's excellent backstage "90210" satire "Grosse Pointe," a series not enough people are watching, moves from Friday night to 10:30 p.m. Sunday this weekend on WCWB... NBC has wisely decided not to go forward with the reality series "Chains of Love" (one woman chained to four guys, she casts them off one by one)... A&E's "Biography" looks back at the career of the late Steve Allen at 7 p.m. Saturday... New episodes of Comedy Central's "South Park" air at 10 p.m. Wednesday for seven consecutive weeks beginning Nov. 8.

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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