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Tuned In: Viewers won't win in network battles

Thursday, February 01, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Television networks hate their viewers. It's easy to jump to that conclusion when considering the frustrating new Thursday night lineup. It's a tug of war for eyeballs as CBS's "Survivor: The Australian Outback" challenges NBC's "Friends." Both shows appeal to the same age 18 to 49 core audience.

Even worse, as this 8 p.m. battle brews, The WB's delightful "Gilmore Girls" will get caught in the crossfire when it returns with original episodes Feb. 15. (The WB is wisely playing "Charmed" reruns for the next two weeks to conserve original episodes).

Competition is all part of the TV environment, but with networks more often aiming series at specific audiences, those viewers find themselves torn between two (or three) shows airing simultaneously.

Currently, Tuesday is a showdown, as Fox's "That '70s Show" challenges The WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Fox's "Dark Angel" beats up on The WB's "Angel."

Last season, ABC's medical drama "Wonderland" faced off against NBC's top-rated medical drama "ER." After two weeks, "Wonderland" flatlined.

In addition to the first showdown tonight, at 9 NBC's popular "Will & Grace" stares eye-to-eye at CBS's popular "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

What are fans of both to do? Tape one and watch the other is the easiest solution.

But on Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. you'd have to own two VCRs to tape "Friends" and "Gilmore Girls" while watching "Survivor."

Though it may tick off viewers, networks make these moves in the interest of improving their ratings, and more specifically, their demographic ratings, which result in increased advertising. "Survivor" appeals to young viewers and will get more movie ads by airing on Thursday.

(Frankly, I was relieved "Survivor" went to Thursday rather than Wednesday; because "Gilmore Girls" is on The WB, which has lower ratings and lower expectations, it can withstand the "Survivor" juggernaut better than NBC's "Ed" could have on Wednesday. )

CBS's gutsy Thursday night move is an effort to both damage NBC and better its own standing, similar to when Fox put "The Simpsons" up against "The Cosby Show" on Thursdays in 1990.

Networks may win, but then, as now, viewers lose.

TV-G? Several years ago the networks unveiled their plan for parental guideline ratings, which called for networks to rate their own programs. Some critics looked askance at this cozy arrangement, but for the most part the networks have rated their shows appropriately.

However in recent weeks I've noticed a glaring exception. AMC's original series "The Lot," a period piece set at a fictional Hollywood studio in the 1930s, carries a TV-G rating. Yet it's filled with sexual innuendo that warrants at least a TV-PG. Sunday's episode included the phrase "son of a ----- " and the sexually charged line, "Ever been to Hawaii? Get yourself a lei."

Granted, the series airs at 10 p.m. and most kids probably aren't watching AMC, but the network needs to take a second look at how it rates "The Lot."

GOOD MORNING AMERICAAAAAAAH! If you're a regular "Good Morning America" viewer, you might choke on your corn flakes Tuesday when the chipper morning show televises a live childbirth.

Cameras will be stationed at hospitals in Boston, Dallas and Houston, with producers no doubt praying that a woman consenting to be filmed gives birth between 7 and 9 a.m.

If it happens, it shouldn't be too graphic: The birth will be filmed from the mother's point of view.

Why do this now? Because today marks the first day of the February sweeps period, a time when the viewership of TV stations is measured to determine future ad rates, causing stations and networks to trot out their most attention-grabbing stories. That leads us to...

NEW CLUTTER KING: Where once WTAE filled the lower third of its screen with overblown graphics during the news, it appears KDKA-TV's new graphics take up the most screen space of any local station.

KDKA's graphics look sort of like those on CNN Headline News, but more bloated.

Several viewers have complained to me about the lowest bar on the screen, which displays a few words describing the story being reported. I suspect KDKA added this descriptor in an effort to capture channel surfing viewers who happen by: They read the descriptor and know immediately what the story is about.

I don't hate the descriptor, but I wish the screen weren't so cluttered. And couldn't they have chosen a better font than an '80s-era style? The italicized anchor names are especially retro, but not in a hip way.

Others have complained to me about the tiny size of KDKA's time/temperature graphic in the lower left corner, so I checked it on two different TVs. Interestingly, on my 13-inch set the time/temp graphic is easily readable, but on my 19-inch set the first digit in the graphic is partially cut off.

UP, DOWN, WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE? Everyone makes mistakes. Newspapers have a daily corrections column to atone for errors, but unless there's a lawsuit involved, TV stations rarely offer viewers a mea culpa.

WPXI should have Tuesday after erroneously reporting in its 5 p.m. newscast that the Federal Reserve planned to increase interest rates. Actually, the Fed was preparing to decrease rates.

"I jumped out of my seat, I couldn't believe they did that," said Bruce Choder, an investment banker from Mt. Lebanon. "Their credibility goes right down the tubes."

He said he called the station and told them they were wrong and asked them to air a correction. That never happened, and Choder came away with disgust for the way he was disregarded.

"I was treated like a piece of poop," he said. "They owe all of us in the investment field an apology for scaring people."

WPXI news director Jennifer Rigby apologized for the mistake. She said she never knew about Choder's calls and didn't learn of the error until Wednesday morning.

"It was a mistake that unfortunately got through our checks and balances," Rigby said. "I'm not happy that it happened."

She said a breaking news story about a church fire distracted news executives. Early reports put the fire in Natrona Heights, but then the newsroom was flooded with calls from viewers who said it was actually in Natrona.

"We got completely diverted into 'Where is this?' Rigby said. "[The interest rates story] zipped right by us, although that's not an excuse."

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.

Thursday, February 01, 2001

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