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Last-minute changes frustrate viewers, editor

Thursday, December 14, 2000

Boy, do I get phone calls. Lots and lots of phone calls. Here's one now -- let's listen in:

"Post-Gazette, Rob Owen"

"Yeah, can you tell me why they didn't show the 'Arthur' Christmas special on WQED that's listed in your TV Week?" (Usually in an angry, accusatory tone)

 
    Where to call

Ticked about TV? Angry about a schedule change? Don't know whom to call? Clip and save this list of local station/national network phone numbers. Put it near your TV, and you'll have the number to call when you have a question, complaint or maybe, just maybe, a compliment.

For concerns about local programming:

KDKA/WNPA: 412-575-2200.

WCWB/WPGH: 412-931-5300.

WPXI/PCNC: 412-237-1100.

WQED/WQEX: 412-622-1300.

WTAE: 412-242-4300.

For prime-time national programming, contact the broadcast networks directly (unless local stations pre-empt the network; affiliates have no control over network changes). There are generally two different divisions at the network level, entertainment and news. They're marked E or N below:

ABC: E: 310-557-7777; N: 212-456-7777.

CBS: E: 323-460-3000; N: 212-975-4321.

Fox: E: 310-369-1000; N: 212-556-2500.

NBC: E: 818-840-3614; N: 212-664-4444.

PBS: 703-739-5000.

UPN: 310-575-7000.

The WB: 818-977-5000.

When space allows, broadcast and cable network addresses and phone numbers run in TV Week magazine. They're always available online, with links to network Web sites, at www.post-gazette.com/tv. Click on TV CONNECTIONS.

 
 

"Well, the station's programmers must have changed their minds."

"Why do you keep changing things? Why can't you get it right?"

"Ma'am, the station must have made a last-minute change after TV Week was printed. At that point, there's not much I can do."

"You could get it right." (Still defiant and combative)

"Not if the TV Week was already printed. Would you like WQED's phone number?"

That's pretty typical. Most of the calls I get are complaints. And among the complaint calls, the most frequent have to do with the TV grid listings. So often those calls -- and the anger and fury that accompany them -- are misdirected.

Allow me to explain.

The current TV Week lists "Arthur's Perfect Christmas" at 8 p.m. Monday on WQED/WQEX. It didn't air. Even WQED's Web site had the show listed for that day and time early last Friday morning, but later in the day "Arthur" got pushed aside by "The Three Tenors Christmas Concert." WQED programmers changed the schedule after TV Week and TV Guide were printed.

WQED broadcast the "Arthur" program twice Sunday morning and will do so again Dec. 24 at 7 p.m. I happened upon this folly and got a note in Saturday's paper so viewers would be prepared. The same thing happened with the Lucille Ball documentary "Finding Lucy." It was supposed to air on Sunday in prime time, and we had a review in the Sunday paper. Again, WQED changed its schedule.

Why make these changes at all? Stations and networks know most TV magazines are published in advance, just as the deadline for TV Guide listings are at least a week in advance of publication.

In some respects, WQED's recent schedule changes are comparable to when a network yanks a low-rated show. WQED pledge producer T.J. Lubinsky attributed recent changes on Channel 13 to the current pledge period, that time when publicly funded TV stations solicit donations from viewers.

Lubinsky explained he watches to see how PBS pledge specials perform on other member stations across the country. If a PBS show in a comparable market fails to bring in money, he said, WQED will often remove it from the schedule and replace it with something that's more likely to maximize the amount of money pledged.

That's why a Barry Manilow concert didn't air last week, same with "Finding Lucy" and "Arthur."

In Tampa, Fla., viewers pledged $600 during "Lucy," Lubinsky said. A "Victor Borge" special can draw $18,000 in pledges.

"What are you going to do?" Lubinsky said. "It's a financial choice."

He said the "Lucy" show, though a good biography, didn't make for good pledge programming.

"[Pledge programming is] something which has enough emotion attached to it that people are willing to pay for something they get for free," Lubinsky said. "'Lucy' was a great story, but would you have spent $120 [in pledge] to get the video?"

He said there's a difference between viewers and members. In Spokane, Wash., "Arthur's Perfect Christmas" was watched in 2 million homes in Washington and 2 million homes in Canada, Lubinsky said, but raised only $400.

"The pledge schedule is a very fluid, living, breathing entity," he said. "We're trying to bring in as many members as possible. In order to meet budgets, we have to maximize air time to bring in as many dollars as possible.... One thing we've learned is that 75 percent of dollars come from channel surfers at pledge time."

That explains the willingness to change WQED's published schedule.

"Pledge is about money," he said, "programming and money."

Lubinsky said WQED always tries to find another time slot for programs bumped during pledge. He urged viewers to set their VCRs tonight for several programs that will air without pledge breaks: "Finding Lucy" at midnight, a replay of Charlotte Church at 1:30 a.m. and the delayed Manilow concert at 2:10 a.m.

In the future, Lubinsky plans to put "Member's Choice" in WQED's listings during much of pledge rather than naming individual programs. That way, viewers won't count on seeing a program and then be disappointed if it doesn't air.

Our local PBS member station isn't the only one to make abrupt changes. More and more often, it seems, networks are changing their schedules.

Cable networks often take out one movie and plug in another.

For broadcast networks, last-minute changes usually result when a low-rated show gets canceled or the network makes a spur of the moment substitution during sweeps.

Or as in the case of Tuesday night, when the Supreme Court's decision in the presidential election blew out the 10 p.m. programs. No need to get frantic; when original episodes are bumped by breaking news, the networks generally reschedule them for the following week.

(Tuesday's "Judging Amy" and "Once and Again" episodes will air next week. Last night's scheduled original episodes of "Ed" and "The West Wing" were also delayed for a week.)

Remedies for disgruntled TV consumers include the following:

1. Take a deep breath. It's only TV.

2. If what's listed in TV Week is not shown, check the daily newspaper. The prime-time grid in the daily paper is updated the day before publication.

3. If you have a computer, you can get updated TV listings on the Post-Gazette's Web site, www.post-gazette.com/tv. Click on TV LISTINGS.

4. Clip and save the box of phone numbers of local stations/broadcast networks so you know who to call if you have a question.

And please remember, I just write about TV. I don't program it.

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



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