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Tuned In: Sweeps reports need to skip the theatrics

Thursday, May 10, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Their bark is worse than their bite, but even their snarling can be obnoxious. I'm talking about some of the investigative reporters on local TV news who are trotted out each sweeps month to bully their way through "in-depth," "investigative" reports.

Many of these reports have merit, but often I come away distrusting what the reporters say. Their manner is frequently arrogant, and by using attack-dog, ambush-style techniques they often appear more interested in making waves than revealing the truth.

WTAE's Jim Parsons and WPXI's Alan Jennings do most of the barking.

In February, Parsons reported on a man who ran pyramid schemes in Pittsburgh and then moved on to Baltimore. It was an update on a previous report and revealed that the guy pulled the same stunt in Maryland.

That's all well and good, but the bulk of the report made it seem as if the man were still bilking people out of money. Only at the end did Parsons explain the man is now running success-training courses rather than a pyramid scheme. After the report, confused anchorman Mike Clark asked, "So he's still at it right now?" I was left with the same impression until I watched the report a second time.

That same month, Paul Van Osdol reported for Channel 4 on state Republican lawmakers who went on a closed-door retreat in the Poconos. His report showed footage of them playing pool, skiing and soaking in a hot tub, all presented as if these activities were somehow wrong. As Van Osdol ultimately admitted, nothing they did was illegal. Taxpayer money wasn't used.

So why hype it in promos that teased, "Why all the secrecy? Was there something your local lawmakers were trying to hide?" Van Osdol knew they weren't hiding illegal activity. Perhaps Channel 4 promo writers thought making it sound worse would be more likely to get viewers to tune in.

That's not to say Van Osdol's report didn't have merit. He rightly pointed out that the lawmakers accepted free skiing from the resort they stayed at, which at least gives the perception of possible quid pro quo. But he could have made his case in the report without initially leading viewers down a dead-end path.

Which brings me back to why I dislike so many TV news investigations: I've been conditioned to be skeptical of them by years of promos and reports that led me to believe the worst, only to find out at the end it was mostly hype.

Too often I'm left with questions, as in the case of a WPXI report in March. Channel 11's Jennings reported on the financial shape of WQED-TV, a story the Post-Gazette has covered extensively but that was probably deemed too unsexy by Channel 11 to warrant running during sweeps.

Jennings found WQED to be "worse off now than five years ago." How he figured that, I'm not sure, since the station's debt had been reduced by about $4 million in that time.

Jennings flashed up graphics trying to make a case for WQED executives with bloated salaries, but failed to say what jobs most of them hold. He compared WQED to another public station (using two different sets of call letters for it) in a similar-size market, but he was comparing apples to oranges. The station he used for comparison doesn't have two TV stations, a radio station and city magazine all under the same roof, and it has 50 employees compared to WQED's staff of about 120.

Not all investigative reporters sound like growling pit bulls. Channel 11's Andy Gastmeyer has an understated style that gives his stories more credibility. KDKA typically does fewer investigative reports and its reporters tend not to engage in as many chase-'em-down-the-street theatrics.

So far this sweeps month, most of the big, promoted "investigations" have been retreads: How to protect your kids from online predators (WTAE), stores that sell cigarettes to minors (KDKA) and some yahoo taking advantage of worker's comp (WPXI).

More newsworthy were a Channel 11 investigation by Gastmeyer of probation problems and a Channel 4 report by Parsons on politics in the Allegheny County Sheriff's Department. These two weren't the same old cookie-cutter stories and legitimate concerns were raised.

How to improve these sweeps features? Tone down the promotional hype and don't promise more than the story can deliver. Better yet, do fewer stories and spend more time on them (of course, then stations would have fewer stories to promote, and they'd hate that).

And let the reporters have more input on promos so those teases more accurately reflect what's in the report. Allow for shades of gray, rather than the simplistic black and white. And find some way to do these reports without showing video of a reporter chasing down the alleged "bad guys." Maybe some viewers sit at home cheering for the reporters, but I'm left feeling embarrassed for everyone involved.

KUDOS: KDKA-TV deserves a pat on the back for its series of interviews with all seven Pittsburgh mayoral candidates, even those who seem like crackpots.

In light of several debates featuring only the front-runners (WQED's debate Monday excepted), KDKA's decision to profile everyone running for the office seems quite equitable.

NEW WPXI ANCHOR: Gina Redmond seems to be fitting in just fine on Channel 11's late newscast. It's a fast-moving half-hour of news, so there's almost no time for anchor chitchat and niceties, but she and David Johnson seem to work well together.

What's more, where Darieth Chisolm had a cool, all-business demeanor, Redmond comes across as a warmer, more comforting presence.

"ROSWELL" RUCKUS: This week's "Roswell" was an excellent hour of television, well-plotted and full of surprises. It's a shame this still-improving series may be canceled by The WB next week.

Fans may be confused by next week's episode (9 p.m., WCWB). It was originally intended to air when the show returned from hiatus last month. But because it's centered on a peripheral character, the order was changed and the episode was held. A WB publicist said the show's continuity shouldn't be disrupted too much by the out-of-order episode. "Roswell" has its season (series?) finale May 23.

MORE "OZ": Production has begun on a new season of HBO's prison drama "Oz." Eight new episodes will air in 2002 with guest stars Mary Alice ("Laurel Avenue"), Betty Buckley, rocker Peter Criss of KISS and Luke Perry, who returns as a jailed televangelist.

YI-YI-YI-YI-YI: The two-hour series finale of "Xena: Warrior Princess" will air at 8 p.m. June 23 on WCWB.

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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