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Tuned In:Local stations try best in difficult times

Thursday, September 13, 2001

Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

At the start of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, Pittsburgh television stations were at their best. But as the hours wore on, particularly by mid-afternoon and into the evening, local affiliates fell a little too much in love with their own coverage at the expense of what the networks could offer.

Local stations tried to provide information without inciting fear, but there was some confusion. At one point reports indicated the Somerset County plane crash claimed 45 lives, later 410 and then back to 45. KDKA-TV had a crawl on screen reporting a fifth plane had crashed at an undisclosed location, which wasn't the case, and the station's mapmakers located Camp David due east of Washington when it's actually north and west of the city.

KDKA news director Al Blinke said his station first broke news of an airliner down in Somerset County, which only shows I was confused too, writing in yesterday's paper that WPXI was first with news of the crash.

As the day wore on, Channel 11, usually the station least likely to showcase anchor banter, offered lots of chitchat as David Johnson and Peggy Finnegan took phone calls from viewers. WTAE's Sally Wiggin and Scott Baker effectively juggled reports from two separate locations within the station.

Though there was clearly a local component to the news, area stations pre-empted national coverage too long Tuesday. KDKA and WTAE stuck to eyewitness reports and seemed more willing to go back to network coverage, but never for long.

Channel 11's cut-ins became especially irksome at night as the station interrupted NBC's coverage just as the network seemed poised to report newsworthy details (at one point, the radar track of the doomed planes). KDKA did the same, cutting off CBS just as Dan Rather was about to interview a Middle East expert.

More than anything, this was a national story, and the networks have the ability to put national figures of prominence (former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, etc.) on the air. Local stations can't do that.

If nothing else, channel surfers learned about the corporate connections among various cable channels Tuesday.

ESPN showed ABC News reports and VH1 showed CBS News, but I never heard local stations direct viewers to those cable networks for a broader perspective. With MSNBC unavailable in the city of Pittsburgh, viewers there were out of luck if they wanted to see NBC reports. WPXI, which has a second outlet on PCNC, could have offered national and local streams of coverage, but mostly showed the same thing on both channels.

One possible benefit of the over-emphasis on local coverage: Maybe some viewers needed to hear the calm, cool, compassionate voices of their hometown newscasters.

"People are thinking about the people in New York and Washington that they know, and our prayers are with them," said WTAE's Wiggin.

"You and I are in the business of words, but I don't think there's any adequate way to say what we're all feeling," said KDKA's Mary Robb Jackson to anchor Stacy Smith.

"The good news is our country is responding and responding well," said WPXI's Peggy Finnegan.

Perhaps being comforted was enough for some viewers, but others, myself included, would have preferred to get more perspective on the events in New York and Washington.

Programming changes

Expect the networks to pre-empt their regular programming in the days and possibly weeks to come.

Fox pulled Friday's telecast of "The X-Files" movie, which features the bombing of an office building, and Sunday's broadcast of "Independence Day," which features alien invaders destroying American landmarks. The films will be replaced by the comedies "Nine Months" on Friday and "Mrs. Doubtfire" on Sunday.

Last night's premiere of CBS's "Wolf Lake" was delayed, along with Sunday's telecast of the annual Emmy awards. No new air dates have been announced. Fox's "Love Cruise," pre-empted Tuesday night, will premiere this coming Tuesday at 9 p.m.

PBS will broadcast special programs relating to the attacks in prime time today and tomorrow, including a repeat of a "Frontline" special tonight at 9 on Osama bin Laden. WQED/WQEX will also air a special, "Talking to Kids About Terrorism and Violence," today at 12:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 1:30 p.m.

The regional Emmy awards for local news coverage, scheduled to be handed out Saturday in Philadelphia, will be delayed until Nov. 2.

Sunday's issue of TV Week in the Post-Gazette will feature a preview of the new fall television season, but premiere dates may change from what's listed.

WPXI scolded

Channel 11 got a nationally read scolding in the current issue of Newsweek.

In the "My Turn" column, Newsweek's Jim Heid wrote about WPXI using footage from March's South Park pedestrian trail accident that killed his sister. The headline summed up his feelings: "My sister's dead body is no longer news."

Heid wrote that the use of footage showing sheet-covered bodies in an August follow-up report was unnecessarily sensational and upset his mother.

When he called WPXI to complain, Heid wrote he was told the station was trying to illustrate safety issues.

"I argued that if the station believed a visual was essential to the story, it could have done what another local station did: It could have used a long shot of the ambulances with their flashing lights, minus the victims' bodies," Heid wrote.

He wrote he would defend a station's right to use the footage when its was news, but five months later that label no longer applies.

"WPXI didn't serve its viewers or it bottom line," Heid wrote. "It simply made a grieving mother cry."

Channel 11 news director Jennifer Rigby did not return a call seeking comment.

Weekend special

WPXI will broadcast "Mountains, Men and Steel Wheels" (7:30 p.m. Saturday), a special produced locally by Channel 11 executive producer Brian Leopold.

The program will detail the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad, including the work that went into the construction of tracks through the mountains near Altoona. Anchor David Johnson will host the program.

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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