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Tuned In: Blatant commercialism could be much worse

Thursday, March 21, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's an old axiom that sometimes it takes leaving to make you appreciate home again. The same goes for TV news.

After spending time watching newscasts in another, smaller market, I've decided Pittsburgh TV looks pretty good. Don't worry, I'm not going soft; it just helps to know things could be worse. A lot worse, as you'll see.

I recently made arrangements to shadow a friend who's a TV news reporter in a nearby state, agreeing up front not to reveal his station or market. That was an easy concession, since the personalities involved are of no consequence to Pittsburgh readers.

In shadowing him, I learned a few tricks of the trade -- for example, the use of ellipses in a script to note where it's best to breathe while reading. I also learned, to no surprise, that the most articulate person with the best sound bites gets the most air time.

I also got to see how errors are made. My reporter friend correctly typed in the identifiers that appear on screen, but the graphics people who retype them screwed up, creating on-air typos.

Going out on a live shot -- to a location that attracted reporters from two other stations -- was a hoot, especially watching the reporters read their stories aloud, practicing before going on the air.

But what was most memorable -- and most unsettling -- had nothing to do with shadowing my friend. Just watching his station was a lesson in commercialism and product placement. I've complained about Pittsburgh stations that have dabbled in this arena, but what our locals do is small potatoes by comparison.

Former WTAE general manager Jim Hefner always complained about blatant commercialism as a scourge of the industry, but I didn't realize how widespread it was.

The station I visited has an ugly, distracting news ticker across the bottom of the screen that includes the logo of a sponsor. It stays there throughout the newscast. A weekly gardening segment prominently displays another sponsor's logo throughout the report.

The most egregious commercialism was found in a weekly news segment. The station's lead female anchor has lunch with community leaders to discuss an issue. She always has to mention the location, a public space at a car dealership, and the name of the fast-food chain that supplies lunch. The chain's logo-adorned packaging received lots of air time in the report I saw.

Commercialism and product placement within the well-defined borders of a newscast (i.e., during the news itself, voiced by the anchors/reporters) diminishes its credibility and creates real and/or perceived conflicts of interest.

If the station promotes a fast-food chain in news reports, what happens if there's a scandal involving that chain? Would the station's reporting be credible? Product placement may help improve the bottom line in the short run, but in the long run, the station's credibility could be irreparably harmed.

Watching this station was like a trip back to the '50s, the heyday of TV news commercialism with the likes of the John Cameron Swayze's "Camel News Caravan." Let's hope Pittsburgh stations skip that trip.

Explaining the promo

In its latest promotional spot, KDKA-TV claims to be "Pittsburgh's No. 1 news station." After the February ratings book, each local station could claim dominance in one newscast or another, but in Pittsburgh's local news horse race, what justification is there for such a blanket statement?

KDKA director of marketing Mike Gerst said it's based on ratings for KDKA's newscasts throughout the year. Factoring out the sweeps months of February, May and November, Gerst said KDKA is dominant at noon, 6 and 11 p.m. nine months out of the year.

Labeling it as such with an asterisk and tiny lettering at the bottom of the screen -- as WTAE did in promos after its November wins -- would avoid raising eyebrows.

Bad report

WPXI aired a story last Thursday at 11 p.m. that seemed to be missing some essentials, specifically confirmation and credibility.

It was a brief story, voiced by an anchor, about a rumor that a student at a local school had gotten sick after chewing gum laced with drugs.

The only interview in the report was with a student who repeated the gossip. No doctor or school official was interviewed or referenced. At the end of the story, Channel 11 reported the girl who chewed the gum was fine and had no drugs in her system.

I can understand occasionally reporting a rumor if the intent is to debunk it, but why not put the rumor to rest at the start of the report and include comment from school officials?

News director Pat Maday said a longer account aired in the early evening news and included an interview with a school representative. He acknowledged attribution "could have been better done in that shortened version."

Digital update

Earlier this month, hundreds of commercial TV stations that are under a government deadline to begin broadcasting in digital by May 1 told the Federal Communications Commission they need more time.

Locally, KDKA, WPXI and WTAE are already broadcasting in digital.

Pittsburgh's Fox affiliate, WPGH, was supposed to broadcast in digital by November 1999. The station got extensions from the FCC, and general sales manager Alan Frank said he expects Channel 53's digital signal to be going out by April 15. He said WCWB will broadcast in digital by May 1.

Christian station WPCB, which also has a May 1 deadline, filed for a six-month extension because it had received permission from the FCC to construct a digital station only earlier this month.

Pittsburgh's UPN station, WNPA, also has asked for an extension and expects to broadcast in digital later this year.

PBS stations are required to broadcast in digital by May 1, 2003.

Digital broadcasts beam a better picture than the conventional analog signal most people receive now. The upgrade requires stations to spend millions and will ultimately cost consumers, too. Though the price of digital TVs has dropped in recent years, they still cost anywhere from $900 to $3,000, plus hundreds more for a set-top box to receive the digital signal.

The FCC says current analog signals will end Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of American households have the capability to receive digital TV signals.

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.

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