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Tuned In: Shows' disappearing acts don't always spell the end

Thursday, April 04, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

This week we're playing catch-up on viewer concerns. "Did they cancel 'Becker'?"

"Is 'Providence' done for?"

"Is 'The Guardian' gone for good?"

No, no and no.

The worries of some viewers are as understandable as they are a touch paranoid. TV networks have conditioned viewers to live in fear that their favorite shows will be cut down in their prime.

The disappearance of the shows mentioned above -- whether it's for one week or four -- can all be chalked up to pre-emption. Sometimes it's because the network wants to try out a new show. Often there are not enough episodes to fill out a TV season. Rather than a rerun (which often generates considerably lower ratings than an original episode), programmers replace regular programming with something else.

It happens to the best of shows. Just because a series is missing for a short time is no reason to worry.

The same goes for local anchors whose absences also cause my phone to ring. Just because Peggy Finnegan isn't on Channel 11 for a week doesn't mean she's been fired. TV people get vacation time, too.

Unless you see a cancellation/-termination notice in these pages, your favorite show/personality will return.

Sam Merrill redux

Though we wrote about it months ago, questions on the whereabouts of WTAE morning Sam Merrill continue to stream in.

Here's a recap: Merrill left at the end of February to return to his former station in Michigan. Wendy Bell, who has been filling in, was named his replacement earlier this week.

The big squeeze

Viewers have long complained about the end credits on prime-time shows getting squeezed to the side to make way for network promos. That practice extends to daytime TV, particularly afternoon talk shows that precede 5 p.m. newscasts, which nowadays start as early as 4:58 p.m.

KDKA often squeezes "The Rosie O'Donnell" show into a corner during the credits as the anchors begin to yammer to the dismay, I would think, of companies such as American Airlines that get promotion on Rosie's show during the end credits.

The squeeze also annoys viewers. A viewer recently e-mailed to complain about WTAE going to the "squeeze back" just as Oprah Winfrey asked a guest a question.

"In the middle of his first sentence, BOOM, Scott Baker appears with some less-than-important headline for the upcoming news," the frustrated viewer wrote.

WTAE news director Bob Longo said "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is cut to include a space for local stations to break in during the end credits.

"It did look like we might have jumped the gun, but that was where we were expected to come in," Longo said. "They edit those shows, and generally speaking it's edited so at the end it's just a smiley two-shot or the audience clapping."

Speaking of squeezes, a New York Times commercial has been running over a portion of the opening credits of Comedy Central's "South Park" on local AT&T cable systems for the past month.

AT&T spokesman Dan Garfinkel said it was a human error no one had caught. A 60-second commercial was put in a 30-second spot, causing the last 30 seconds of the commercial to trample the show. Garfinkel said the problem has been corrected.

Broken news?

Several viewers have written to ask why there's no closed captioning on breaking news reports outside of newscasts, such as the truss collapse at the convention center earlier this year.

Stations have started the transition from captioning based on the script, which sometimes does not include captioning of dialogue from live reports, to real-time closed-captioning in which a captioner watches the newscast and types in what is said.

KDKA news director Al Blinke said all of his station's newscasts are real-time closed captioned by Caption Colorado. The 10 p.m. news on WNPA still runs off the script.

WTAE's 6 and 11 p.m. news is real-time closed captioned. None of WPXI's newscasts are captioned in real time.

To display what is being said in breaking news situations, real-time closed captioning is pretty much required.

"We can do it," said Blinke. "All we have to do is call and tell them to do it."

He said in a true breaking news situation, he's busy monitoring what's happening and closed captioning hasn't been a priority.

"To be honest, this is an enlightening thing for me to hear," Blinke said. "From here on out, it will be on my list of things to do when breaking news happens."

WTAE news director Bob Longo said it's a similar situation at his station, which contracts with local captioning company VITAC.

"If it's extended breaking news, we'll call them," Longo said. "There have been some breaking news situations where we've activated them and for some we haven't. It's a time issue, but we have to be sensitive to people wanting to know what's going on. How many people are affected? Is it something life-threatening, something people have to know?"

WPXI news director Pat Maday said in breaking news situations his station tries to type up some basic information to feed the closed captioning system, especially during severe weather, but it doesn't always happen.

"We're trying to work hard to be consistent with that," Maday said.

Recently Community College of Allegheny County was one of 14 schools to receive federal funding to train broadcast captioners. CCAC will receive a $200,000 grant to expand its caption training program.

More 'Jeopardy!'

Looking to strengthen the lead-in to its noon news, WPXI has added a second run of "Jeopardy!" at 11 a.m. followed by "Family Feud" at 11:30 a.m. The game show combination replaces canceled daytime talk show "Iyanla."

Candidates forum

It's no "Celebrity Boxing," but gubernatorial candidates -- Democrats Bob Casey and Ed Rendell and Republican Mike Fisher -- are interviewed in "Meet the Candidates" tonight at 8 on WQED/WQEX.

MSNBC revamp

MSNBC confirmed yesterday it has hired Phil Donahue to host a prime-time talk show beginning this summer. His show will air at 8 p.m. opposite Fox News Channel's popular "The O'Reilly Factor."

Donahue's program will not have a live studio audience but will include interviews with newsmakers about issues of the day.

"I hope we'll be civil, I hope we'll be different, and, please God, I hope we won't be boring," Donahue said in a teleconference.

MSNBC has struggled in the ratings race with Fox News Channel and CNN in recent months. To make room for Donahue's still-untitled show, "The News With Brian Williams" will move to 7 p.m. and "Hardball With Chris Matthews" will air at 9 p.m. exclusively on MSNBC (it will no longer be seen on CNBC).

"Ashleigh Banfield on Location" will move to 10 p.m., and low-rated "Alan Keyes Is Making Sense" gets bumped to 11 p.m.

More cancellations

Fox yanked the last two episodes of "The American Embassy," scheduled to air Monday, replacing them with the movie "The Wedding Singer."

UPN pulled its low-rated Friday night reality shows "Under One Roof" and a rebroadcast of "The Amazing Race," replacing them with a movie. Some CBS affiliates were also upset with "Amazing Race" turning up on UPN within the same week.

The WB has yanked "For Your Love" from its Sunday lineup, remaking the night with a 7 p.m. movie followed by "JKX: The Jamie Kennedy Experiment" and "Off Centre" in the 9 p.m. hour.


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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