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Tuned In: 'On Q' on the mark with Haitian segment

Thursday, April 11, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's no secret the best part of WQED newsmagazine "On Q" is the taped segments. It's where you'll find reports with the most depth and some of the best storytelling on all of Pittsburgh television. (The studio segments, alas, are another matter entirely.)

Tonight at 8, WQED premieres "From Pittsburgh to Haiti: Mission of Mercy," a half-hour special produced by "On Q" staffers. It's a moving and impressive report on the connections, past and present, between Pittsburgh and a hospital serving the poor in Haiti.

Reported by "On Q's" Michael Bartley, it's the story of Pittsburgh native Dr. Larimer Mellon, who passed up working in any of his family's varied businesses to start Haiti's Hospital Albert Schweitzer with his wife, Gwen. Both are gone now, but their work continues.

"On Q" cameras went to Haiti in late February to see the ongoing efforts of doctors from Pittsburgh who take time off to volunteer at HAS. With video of sick, suffering Haitian children that's sometimes uncomfortable but necessary for our pampered eyes to see, "Mission of Mercy" is well-edited and painstakingly sensitive.

Back in Pittsburgh, Bartley also shows the work of friends of the hospital who help raise funds for its survival by selling Haitian art.

I do wish viewers learned more about how the Pittsburgh doctors manage to get time off to do their work in Haiti, and, a minor jeer within a cheer about the music: Use of Sting's "Fragile" fits the tone of the piece perfectly, but a few music cues go too far. It's something I've noticed in other "On Q" pieces; it's as if producers don't trust the story to conjure emotions honestly, so they attempt to wring feelings out of viewers through music. Sometimes less is more.

Those concerns are minor. "Mission of Mercy" shows the powerful reporting that results from a dedication to the time and resources necessary to tell a story thoughtfully and thoroughly.

Traffic troubles

Did anyone else get the impression some folks in the local media were salivating over the Fort Pitt Bridge/Tunnel closure earlier this week? The tone of local newscasts made it seem that they were rooting for chaos.

Last Thursday at 11 p.m., WPXI even displayed a countdown clock to the closing. For TV stations, this was evidently as exciting as New Year's Eve.

Of course, the reality didn't live up to the hype. Sure, there are some inconvenient traffic snarls, but the city is still standing.

All the stations prepared viewers for the closing with maps and by sending reporters out to drive the detours. Interestingly, Monday night the stations that make the most hoopla out of their helicopters were outdone by KDKA, the station that seems to fly its chopper the least.

WTAE's signal from its helicopter kept fading to snow, and WPXI didn't cut to the view from its chopper all that often. KDKA used images from its helicopter extensively, although its wobbly camera shots might have sent some viewers racing for Dramamine.

All local stations will have the opportunity to tap into PennDOT traffic cameras for use in newscasts beginning April 22. This came after a minor tussle late last week amid charges of favoritism, unfairness and typical TV news sniping. KDKA was in a position to get the video first, other stations screamed, lawyers were summoned, and an agreement was reached.

Rukeyser on WQED?

Deposed PBS mainstay Louis Rukeyser has signed on to host "Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street" on CNBC (8:30 p.m. Fridays starting next week). The deal also allows PBS stations to rerun the same program later in the weekend, making it natural to wonder if Pittsburgh's WQED/WQEX will pick up the show.

Station manager B.J. Leber said WQED executives are looking into the possibility of carrying the new show, but nothing has been determined. Stay tuned.

Why bother?

Reports in the Hollywood trades this week said Fox is taking extra measures to protect the secrecy surrounding the season finale of the thriller "24." What's the point? Fox's previews give away the turning point of the next episode almost every week, so chances are they'll do it for the season-ender, too.

It's disappointing that network executives think the only way to get viewers to tune in is by blowing the element of surprise.

'Blue' moves ... again

According to Daily Variety, ABC will move "NYPD Blue" back to 10 p.m. Tuesdays for May sweeps, which begin April 24. "Philly" returns in the 10 p.m. slot for the next two weeks, at which point it will have aired all its episodes for the current season.

A Lutheran's lament

It was a surprise to see the stars of the old claymation show "Davey and Goliath" appear in a new Mountain Dew commercial. In the '60s and '70s, the show, produced by the Lutheran Church, gently preached morality through a boy named Davey and his talking dog-as-conscience, Goliath.

In the new commercial, Davey and friend Tommy fight over a can of soda, Davey's dad appears, and Davey gets contrite. Then Dad downs the Dew.

"We got hosed, Tommy," Davey says. "We got hosed."

My initial reaction was, well, it's funny in the same way puppets with potty mouths on Fox's "Greg the Bunny" are funny. If it was simply a parody on "Mad TV," I wouldn't give it a second thought.

But it turns out these commercials were done with the blessing of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which owns the rights to the characters. That colors my reaction as a critic, viewer and Lutheran.

Commercializing the characters is bothersome, but to allow them to use vaguely distasteful language in an attempt at ironic humor is a greater disappointment.

"Hosed," meaning "screwed," isn't so bad in the grand scheme of what's on TV these days. But when commercial broadcasters routinely challenge long-standing societal standards, you'd think a church would not allow the innocence of a goofy childhood favorite to be compromised. It's not the commercial that offends me as much as the church's complicity in it.

Rev. Eric Shafer, director of communications for the ELCA, said the church signed off on the commercial's script, and he's received fewer than 10 e-mails complaining about any element of the commercial.

"It's something Davey would never say," Shafer said. "It certainly did concern us. It means 'tricked' in the vernacular. Junior high kids speak a lot worse words than that, unfortunately. We felt it was worth the risk to get Davey back in the popular culture."

By selling the rights to the characters, Shafer said, the ELCA hopes to raise funds to finance the production of new "Davey and Goliath" episodes that will again teach moral lessons.

So the ends justify the means? Surely that's not a lesson the original "Davey and Goliath" would have taught.

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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