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Tuned In: CNN falters, UPN fine in newscasts

Thursday, August 09, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The world has gone mad today

And good's bad today

And black's white today

And day's night today

-- From "Anything Goes" by Cole Porter

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world when the debut of KDKA's 10 p.m. newscast on WNPA comes off as more respectable than the revamped CNN Headline News.

Given the resources at the national level, it's only reasonable to expect a better newscast. But any local news program is better than the prime-time edition of Headline News with Miles O'Brien and former "NYPD Blue" actress-turned-anchor Andrea Thompson.

Make that Ahn-DRE-ah, as she says it.

Anyone expecting exceptional journalism out of Headline News is looking in the wrong place. That's not its design. But what's distressing about the "new and improved" Headline News is how they're aping the worst of local TV news, adding cutesy anchor banter. (It's especially noticeable in prime time and less severe the rest of the day).

Inspiration from local news? How is that possible?

The old Headline News was respectable because it gave just the facts and avoided banal chit chat. No more. From 6 to 9 p.m. the emphasis is on personality.

Monday during the 8 p.m. hour Thompson tried to explain the new graphics that push the anchor into a square in the upper right corner of the TV screen. These graphics are more screen-clogging than anything Pittsburgh stations have concocted.

The other half of the top of the screen is devoted to "juicy meat," Thompson said, text that tells viewers more about the story being reported. As she explained the network's new look, the jokier, folksier Headline News graphics team flashed up Thompson's favorite pastimes, which include cooking and scuba diving.

"Isn't that special?" she said.

This is a national newscast? With the CNN brand name? Sounds more like MTV News.

Actually, it sounded worse when Thompson tossed to "entertainment diva" Alisha Davis, who offered her opinions while reading her stories.

Unlike the old Headline News, which put few CNN faces on the air (sports and weather anchors just gave voiceovers to video or graphics), the new Headline News looks like the bridge of the starship Enterprise with everyone getting his or her moment in front of the camera.

There's probably a greater breadth of news -- especially trivial news -- in the revamped Headline News, but it requires viewers to spend more time watching. That was no doubt part of the master plan to encourage ratings growth. To lure young people, the broadcast now ends each hour with a pointless clip of pop music.

Despite the hubbub over Thompson's morphing from actress to anchor, she'll likely become a decent news reader and already has less of an ice princess personality than one would guess from the past roles she's played. Is she a journalist? No, but that's not what Headline News requires.

My biggest complaint with this revamp is its informality. Thompson and O'Brien read scripts that sound unprofessional. "Dollars" becomes "bucks" and "jack" for reports on how much White House employees earn. O'Brien even insinuated the top salary of White House employees ($140,000) is the reason for the Bush administration's tax cut. Never mind the unfairness, it's ridiculously arrogant and stupid for an anchor to tsk-tsk anyone making $140,000 when it's a good bet the anchor is making more than that himself.

That tone is more offensive than the look or sound of Headline News. The music is reminiscent of the "Survivor" theme, which is fine and modern in a "world beat" way. And the graphics, though cumbersome, are probably useful for Web-savvy people with only a few minutes to get up-to-date. (People less accustomed to reading Web sites are more likely to object.)

At the bottom of the screen a weather map rotates various regions of the country in the right corner with headlines atop the other side. The writers still need practice concocting these. "Group that tried to buy TWA nixed in bid for US," said one headline Monday, implying a mysterious group was out to buy the United States when it should have said US Airways.

"Looks like we gave up a little real estate," O'Brien said after Thompson introduced the new look.

"Pretty soon we'll be gone," Thompson replied.

While I have no problem with the anchors (except maybe the smarmy technology reporter, gossipy political commentator and "Entertainment Tonight" wannabe), they need to give the too-cool-for-school attitude a rest.


Comparatively, the first couple of broadcasts of KDKA's 10 p.m. news on WNPA, Channel 19, were unremarkable, and I mean that in a good way.

KDKA didn't set out to reinvent the news program; the news on WNPA is like any other KDKA newscast. The primary differences are new graphics and a new set (the red and blue in the background of some shots was a bit garish Monday; the lighting was either changed Tuesday or I got used to it).

No effort is made to differentiate between the news on KDKA and WNPA. The frosted glass backdrop even has "KDKA-TV" across it. Microphones used in interviews all have the KDKA logo. Channel 19's call letters, WNPA, are nowhere to be found, with the station adopting "UPN19" using the same font for 19 that's used for KDKA's 2.

Anchors Jennifer Antkowiak and Ken Rice are smooth news readers, though this new broadcast has, appropriately, less of the Jen & Ken cutesiness of the 5 p.m. KDKA show.

The broadcast moves faster at the start with 10 minutes of news called "10 at 10," not to be confused with "11 at 11" on WPXI or "12 at 11" on WTAE. The show ends with Jeff Verszyla offering a 14-day temperature forecast.

"The Nightly Sports Call" follows at 10:35 p.m. with Bob Pompeani hosting from what looks like a basement closet. It's sad when the lighting for Thor Tolo in KDKA's radio studio is better than what Pompeani gets at the TV station.

The big question is whether anyone will watch what an announcer emphatically bills as "THE 10 O'Clock News" (as if by emphasis KDKA can wish away WPGH's newscast). It's a unique battle because I've always thought the tone of WPGH's news broadcast is most similar to the tone of down-to-earth, relatively hype-free KDKA.

Early ratings mean little (people have to find the station first), but for the record, Monday night few people tuned in, with WNPA earning a 0.8/1 rating and share from 10 to 10:30 compared to a 5.1/8 for WPGH (Tuesday WNPA was up to a 1.0/2, WPGH dropped to 3.4/6). In time the balance of power might shift, especially if viewers who prefer Jen & Ken to Sheila Hyland and Jay Harris express loyalty with their remote controls.

I'm not convinced they will. "THE 10 O'Clock News on UPN 19" offers more of the same that's found in KDKA's early and late newscasts. WPGH still stands as an independent voice.

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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