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Tuned In: Sept. 11 influences news 'sweeps' stories

Thursday, November 01, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Promotional spots promise that today KDKA-TV will investigate toxic mold in homes. WPXI returns to Three Mile Island. WTAE looks at the current state of air travel.

It can mean only one thing: SWEEPS!

The November ratings period, during which audience viewership is measured to set future advertising rates, begins today and runs through Nov. 28.

Through the prism of Sept. 11, this sweeps month will look different.

KDKA-TV news director Al Blinke, a former TV news consultant, said stations jousting in the ratings with competitive NBC affiliates often have success with "Does it work?" segments where reporters test things and report the results. But he has none of those planned this month.

"We'll pick stories that will be relevant to people in the times we're living in," Blinke said. Non-Sept. 11 features (see: toxic mold, above) will also be part of the station's game plan.

Anne Linaberger, KDKA executive producer of investigations and special projects, said Channel 2 will continue to shy away from "cookie cutter special reports" that become less special the more often they're done.

KDKA will do the same number of sweeps features as in recent ratings periods, possibly even fewer due to the evolving story of the terrorist attacks and America's response.

"You don't want to box yourself into a corner with special reports that take up time you need to be telling people the news of the day," Linaberger said.

WTAE news director Bob Longo said about 75 percent of his station's investigative pieces will be related in some way to Sept. 11.

"We're not doing anything that could be viewed as exploitative," Longo said. "It becomes a matter of what kind of voice you use to promote your stories. I don't think people are in the mood to be having their emotions or their sensibilities toyed with in any way, shape or form -- not that we try to do that at any time -- but the nature of promoting anything on TV requires you to set it aside and make it look different. I'd be very surprised to see November sweeps be business as usual anywhere."

On the consumer side, Channel 4 has already started a smart, useful feature called "Rumor Control 4." Some might argue rumors shouldn't be dignified with any coverage, but with the speed stories spread on the Internet, it's reassuring to hear rumors batted down.

Channel 11 news director Jennifer Rigby did not want to discuss her station's sweeps plans for competitive reasons.

Anthrax precautions

After national networks received anthrax in the mail, local media outlets took further precautions in handling their mail. But only Channel 11 has a dedicated anthrax trailer in the parking lot.

WPXI's Rigby said the station doesn't really expect to receive a package containing anthrax. The move is to prevent a hoax from shutting down the station.

"If we were to experience that and authorities needed to come in, it can disrupt your business for a good deal of time," Rigby said. "It just seemed the prudent thing to do."

Mail is opened in the trailer and then delivered to employees inside the station.

'Buffy' sings

Titled "Once More with Feeling," next week's musical episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (8 p.m. Tuesday, UPN) is a rousing experiment that mostly succeeds.

Not as good as "Hush" from two years ago, but better than many of this season's downer episodes (TV to slit your wrist by), it features writer/director/songwriter Joss Whedon giving the casts' vocal cords a workout.

Whedon's talent as a clever lyricist almost equals his work as a dramatist. The songs advance the show's serialized plot while further defining the characters. He's clearly a musical theater buff, paying homage to the various styles within the genre.

The story has a demon (guest star Hinton Battle) forcing all the residents of Sunnydale to sing their innermost feelings and secrets aloud. The best number features Anya (strong-voiced Emma Caulfield) and Xander (Nicholas Brendon) in a song out of a '50s-era romantic comedy. Vampire Spike (James Marsters) gets to belt out a "Rent"-style rock opera. (There's no word yet on whether a soundtrack album will be released.)

Series star Sarah Michelle Gellar exercises her pipes in several songs, including "Going Through the Motions," the episode's first song. In it, she sings as she slays, getting accompaniment from various graveyard monsters.

The only misstep: Dawn's interpretive dance alongside demons almost grinds the show to a halt.

Taping alert: The episode may run long -- UPN's yet to make an official announcement -- so if you're taping, set your VCR to record for an extra 15 minutes just in case.

'Survivor' snores

The bloom is off the "Survivor" rose. "Survivor: Africa" (8 tonight, CBS) is a bore. There's no one to cheer eagerly for or against. No one to love or loathe. Their personalities are mostly just bland. Great music, but I'd rather be watching "The Amazing Race," CBS's far superior reality show.

Unfortunately, "The Amazing Race" airs opposite "The West Wing" and I view reality shows like a sporting event: They're both forms of programming I enjoy watching "live," but not on tape. And there's no way I'm not watching "West Wing," so I've missed a number of "Amazing Race" episodes. But the ones I have seen were much more entertaining than the latest "Survivor."

'Simpsons' Halloween

Better late than never, this year's "Simpsons" Halloween episode will air at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. The series premieres in its regular Sunday night time slot Nov. 11.

This year's edition includes a Harry Potter spoof and a renovation of the Simpson home with the addition of a "2001" HAL-like computer that can speak in the voice of various celebrities, including Dennis Miller (not the real guy, his voice is impersonated).

"Isn't that the voice that caused all those suicides?" Lisa asks after hearing Miller speak.

"Murder-suicides," Marge corrects.

More commercials

A few local viewers have called to complain about AMC adding commercials to movies. Commercials on that cable network aren't altogether new, having aired between programs and movies for several years.

Ads during the films -- AMC calls them "intermissions" -- are new, but there's really nothing to be done about the commercials but stomp and complain, then write a letter and ultimately get no satisfaction. Welcome to corporate culture, where consumers are seen as a disposable commodity.

Fighting corporate culture can be worthwhile -- especially when a TV series is on the line -- but because most AMC movies are available on video, it's a losing battle I'm not inclined to fight. If you want to write, here's the address: AMC, 200 Jericho Quad, Jericho, NY 11753.

Quote of the week

Fox's "Pasadena," which I highly recommend to anyone who likes prime-time soaps twisted, airs at 9 p.m. tomorrow with a new episode that includes this exchange between a rich, disapproving mother (Barbara Babcock) and her spoiled, bratty daughter (Natasha Gregson Wagner).

"Don't be passive-aggressive," mommy dearest says.

"I could be aggressive-aggressive and kick you in the face," the darling daughter replies.

Sick and surprising, "Pasadena" is an absurd delight.

E-mail Rob Owen at rowen@ post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Thursday, November 01, 2001

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