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Tuned In: Stations turn up hype for May sweeps

Thursday, April 25, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Can you smell it? If television sets had smell-o-vision, you'd definitely be able to pick up the stench. It's a mix of hubris and fear as stations position themselves for a winning May sweeps but live in abject fear that it could be the opposite.

Sweeps, the period when the demographic viewership of local stations is measured, officially starts today, but the fear-hubris combination that's becoming business as usual was already in evidence. It manifests itself in screaming promos and a desire to be first to "break" a story at seemingly any cost.

On Friday afternoon, Channel 4 sent Kelly Frey on the air to report a terrorist threat against banks in the Northeast. Minutes later in a local press conference to announce a drug bust, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the threat "may or may not be reliable."

WTAE news director Bob Longo said it was his call to interrupt regular programming with the story, which he said the station got from ABC News sources.

"We thought we had something. ABC News told us we had something," Longo said. "What it turned out to be was a little less than that."

Breaking into programming to report an unsubstantiated threat could needlessly upset some viewers; then again, maybe not. Who could blame viewers if they're numb to "breaking news"? TV stations are becoming the boy who cried wolf.

Not long ago, I wrote with some hyperbole that stations were apt to label the story of a politician stubbing his toe as "breaking news." Monday night I was watching KDKA-TV when the station reported on an elderly man who fell down a hill. The story was labeled "breaking news."

Never mind that an argument could be made that the story wasn't "news" to begin with, but "breaking news"? Why was it urgent, because it just happened and they knew about it and could get it on the air? What kind of news judgment is that?

Now sweeps is upon us and the real hype begins. Take a deep breath and watch TV news with caution.

TV reporters in book

Four Pittsburgh TV reporters recount their experiences on Sept. 11 in the new book "Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11" ($24.95, Bonus Books).

WTAE's Marcie Cipriani and Susan Koeppen, WPXI's Andy Gastmeyer and Karen Welles and reporters from stations in Johnstown and Altoona contribute to a narrative of the day that includes the recollections of dozens of other broadcast journalists (Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, etc.). Former WTAE reporter Nina Pineda, now with WABC in New York, is pictured in the book.

The memories are compiled chronologically. Some are as simple as what the reporter did, others are more thoughtful, even critical impressions of the work done that day.

Gastmeyer's entries are particularly involving. You can hear his voice in his writing as he describes driving down the turnpike toward Somerset County with his cameraman, remembering the 1994 crash of USAir Flight 427.

"Neither one of us felt up to this. We'd been there before: Nonstop reporting. Nonstop 'live.' Nonstop hours. Working in an unfriendly environment. The local police. The local fire department. An obstacle at every turn.... The constant demands of passing along what you know that's 'new.' "

Some will, no doubt, view "Covering Catastrophe" as gratuitously self-promoting, but as I skimmed through its pages, it struck me as a gripping chronicle of a horrible, sad day that shows reporters at their best, worst and most human.

A reporter for WCBS in New York, who was in a news van near the World Trade Center, writes about her instinct after the first tower was hit: "Call it into the newsroom; get away later."

Reporter Sherry Stalley of WJAC in Johnstown described being overwhelmed with emotion in between reports from the crash site of Flight 93 while trying to make a call on her cell phone.

"So what did I want to do? I wanted to call my mom," she wrote. "Thirty five years old with two children and all I could think of was talking to my mom. For whatever reason, my call made it through to Idaho. She answered, and I started to cry."

Rukeyser's revenge

Kudos to Louis Rukeyser, who turned lemons into lemonade.

After essentially being demoted from the host role on the weekly PBS financial show "Wall $treet Week," Rukeyser blasted the PBS station that produced the show on its own airwaves, and then they fired him.

Three weeks later, he came roaring back like a phoenix from the ashes, hosting a nearly identical show on CNBC (8:30 p.m. Fridays) that's also being made available to PBS stations after its cable premiere.

"Well, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, welcome back," Rukeyser said at the start of his show last week, which generated CNBC's highest prime-time ratings all year (excluding Olympics coverage).

That same day, the Miami Herald reported PBS president Pat Mitchell sent letters to PBS member stations encouraging them not to carry Rukeyser's program. Talk about poor form.

Until now, I've been impressed with Mitchell's efforts to bring PBS into the 21st century, but her support of Maryland Public Television's giving Rukeyser the boot was misguided. His show had big ratings for PBS, even if the demographics weren't desirable. It's a business/money show; what did she expect?

WQED station manager B.J. Leber said a decision has not been made about airing Rukeyser's show locally. She said Mitchell's letter doesn't put pressure on WQED.

"I don't think I'd call it pressure," Leber said. "Everybody weighs in when you have a decision like this to make. We have to sit down and balance everything and figure out what's best for the community."

Arts reporter on 'NewsHour'

PBS's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" (6 p.m. weeknights, WQED/WQEX) has added an arts reporter to its staff. Jeffrey Brown, who is also senior producer for national affairs on "NewsHour," was named to the newly created post.

'Today' reports on PSAs

A two-part feature earlier this month on NBC's "Today" about the history of public service announcements failed to report on their diminishing presence on both local stations and national networks.

What's worse, most PSAs are now sponsored, meaning stations slap on the logo of a company that's already buying commercials on the station as a "value added" feature. So much for the "public service" part of PSAs. That wasn't mentioned in the "Today" report either.

Locals on TV

Food Network host Mario Batali visits PNC Park to sample a Primanti Bros. sandwich as part of "Ballpark Cafe 2" (9 p.m. Sunday).

Two caretakers and their animals from the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium will be featured on the nationally syndicated show "Wild Moments" (1 p.m. Sunday, WTAE). This weekend Herb Ellerbrock appears with the zoo's Komodo dragon, and on May 5 general curator Lee Nesler talks about the kinkajou, a prehensile tailed mammal native to South America.

PCN visits PG

As part of its "Election 2002" journalist roundtable in the hometown of each gubernatorial candidate, the Pennsylvania Cable Network visits Pittsburgh (hometown of Mike Fisher) and the Post-Gazette newsroom today to tape a one-hour discussion about election-year issues.

The program will air tonight at 9:30 and tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. Staff writer and columnist Dennis Roddy, education editor Jane Elizabeth and political editor Jim O'Toole will be interviewed.


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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