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While the critic's away news comes into play

Thursday, January 25, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Go away for a few weeks and all hell breaks loose. While I was covering the TV critics press tour in Los Angeles, an exceptional news director at WPGH was fired, a station changed format, and WQED revealed it's returning to Plan A. Now it's time for me to weigh in.

Sinclair Broadcasting's WPGH casualties continue to mount. Add Tom Burke's name to a list that already includes Jayne Adair, Terry Caywood, Mike Norten and Stu Powell.

Burke's dismissal from WPGH is disappointing and wrong. He ran a shop that had the best morale, the greatest opportunities for reporters to learn and a refreshing tendency to shy away from scare-'em-into-watching writing and promos.

Burke is passionate about journalism and was passionate about improving WPGH's standing.

When viewers called me to complain that WPGH was touting upcoming stories with "next" and then the stories wouldn't air for 30 minutes, I talked to Burke about it. He agreed "next" wasn't the proper word, and he said he'd see to it that "ahead" or something similar would be used in the future. From what I could tell, he kept that pledge.

I can't recall another news director agreeing with viewers, listening to complaints without getting defensive and using a suggestion to improve his newscast.

Burke was overzealous in his efforts to explain why the station botched its coverage of the farewell to Three Rivers Stadium. His decision to go on a radio show without permission from his superiors to talk about the broadcast (just after complaints died down) broke Sinclair rules.

But let's consider how stupid those rules are. Burke is a news director. His job is communication. People in the media should not have their tongues tied by restrictive corporate rules, which also exist at other stations in town. If they're trusted to report the news, they should be trusted to speak.

Accepting wrong-headed rules as a fact of life, perhaps Burke deserved a reprimand or suspension. But by firing Burke, corporate policy was given more importance than his journalistic contributions to Channel 53. That's incredibly short-sighted.

The rise of corporate culture is destroying TV news and pushing out quality people, not only at Sinclair-owned stations, but everywhere.

A low-power television station debuted local programming on Pittsburgh airwaves Jan. 10. WONT-TV airs on Channel 35 and covers Allegheny County, offering live auctions every night, 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., from Eastland Mall in North Versailles.

General manager Gershon Haston said the station auctions off liquidated merchandise from K-Mart, Wal-Mart and The Sharper Image, among other stores. Items include a George Foreman rotisserie, furniture, treadmills, tools, etc.

"It's the craziest thing you'd ever see in your life, people are having so much fun," Haston said. "This is live television the way it used to be."

When local programming isn't on the air, WONT airs America's Collectibles channel. (WONT does not have cable carriage.) This new programming replaces the Shop at Home network that aired on Channel 35 for the past five years.

To bid, viewers must have a bidder number, which they can get by calling 412-675-0200. Starting Sunday, WONT will allow viewers to bring in items they want to auction off between 7:30 and 8 p.m. daily.

Among the items up for auction Sunday: seats from the Steelers locker room.

As for WQED's latest plan, it seems likely to be approved with the onset of a Republican administration that's likely to push government deregulation further.

Last week in Pasadena, Calif., I had breakfast with Diane Sutter, whose ShootingStar Broadcasting hopes to buy WQEX for $20 million, pending FCC approval of the station's return to a commercial license.

Sutter is confident the FCC will approve the latest deal.

"My sense is the reason they didn't go along with the de-reservation then was because [WQED] had a backup plan," Sutter said.

That backup plan involved the three-way swap of WQEX, WPCB and Pax TV. At the time, the FCC said it would move "expeditiously" to rule on the case. It took more than two years.

"I'm hoping there's a different definition of 'expeditious' now," she said, adding it would be ideal if she could take over Channel 16 by fall. "I'm hoping the FCC will view this as I do, as an opportunity to add programming and get a new voice in the market and create a stronger public station that will be financially secure in a way it hasn't been in a long time."

Sutter said she'll meet with Pax TV executives this week to discuss the possibility of affiliating with the family-friendly network. But she also wants to "learn what resources exist in Pittsburgh that might be utilized by a television station," mentioning Pittsburgh Filmmakers as a possible source of programming.

She seemed sincere in her enthusiasm for local programs on the station, even if she affiliates with Pax.

Sutter doesn't yet have the $20 million to buy the station, but she's lining up investors. She has a good track record. She said she bought an Abilene, Texas, station for $7.3 million and sold it three years later for $16.7 million.

Though there's opposition to the sale of WQEX, more Pittsburgh viewers will benefit from the addition of a commercial station than they would a second noncommercial station. Until Pittsburgh gets a Pax station, we won't have a full complement of national broadcast networks, which renders this an incomplete market.

WQED's plan to sell WQEX doesn't disturb me, but their methods -- secret meetings closed to the public and press -- are repugnant.

In its mission statement, WQED emphasizes "communication, commitment and community," but it left out the first and last "c" words when conjuring up this plan.

By closing its meetings on "Plan C," WQED took away the opportunity for the public to see how its board of directors reacted. (At meetings, board members rarely ask questions, let alone oppose anything proposed by station executives.)

A public station owes it to the community to be up front about its intentions. By hiding under the cloak of "executive session," WQED denied the public and its members an opportunity to have any say in the station's latest bail out attempt.

MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DO: Last year WTAE began its "Healthy 4 Life" initiative that included a weight loss program as one of its components. What a shock to see WPXI now offering the "Three Rivers Diet."

Let's hope we never see the "Hometown Advantage Slim Down" on KDKA or "Positively Less Fat Pittsburgh" on WPGH.

And in what goes around comes around, Channel 4 is aping Channel 11's "11 at 11" with a promise of "12 minutes of uninterrupted news." Is a whole 60 seconds enough to make viewers switch channels?

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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