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Tuned In: Flagrant overuse taints breaking news label

Thursday, May 09, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

We've reached the breaking point regarding so-called "breaking news. " Forget about the excesses of sweeps month features and investigations, which pale in comparison. The attempt to label every bit of news that comes into the newsroom as "breaking," no matter how insignificant, is a more worrisome trend.

Someday, when there really is news of importance, viewers won't even look up from the magazine they're reading to pay attention. Once again, local TV news is shooting itself -- not in the foot, but with a potentially fatal blow to the head.

The number of utterances of "breaking news" by anchors or graphics with those words reached as high as eight in KDKA's early evening newscasts on May 1.

From May 1 to 7, on the weekday early evening newscasts, I counted 22 uses of "breaking news" on KDKA and 22 on WPXI's programs. WTAE, showing at least a little restraint, used the term 10 times on those five nights.

KDKA tends to use the term more often for local stories and for more inconsequential ones. On May 2, the station labeled a story about animals seized due to cruel treatment as "breaking news."

"These pictures are just in," anchor Stacy Smith said, as images of everyday animals in a shelter showed up on screen. And this is urgent because ...?

Seeking to avoid burning out the breaking news label (too late), Channel 2 has also created the seemingly synonymous term "News Alert." Combining the two terms would definitely give KDKA the hyperbolic edge.

WPXI, which is no stranger to screaming and waving its arms to get the attention of viewers, is more likely to slap the breaking news label on footage that comes in via satellite from other parts of the country.

On May 3, the story of a man trapped in a hole in the ground at a construction site might have warranted coverage in Houston -- where it happened -- but someone at Channel 11 thought it was of utmost importance for Pittsburghers to know. It wasn't.

WTAE, which ignored the February Homewood police standoff where a suspect stood on a roof with a gun, went wall-to-wall covering a standoff in Avalon on April 29 where the suspect was inside his home (whether or not he had a gun was unclear). News director Bob Longo did not return a call seeking explanation on how one deserved breathless live coverage and the other did not.

(Actually, all the local stations have become overly fond of police standoffs in recent weeks. Standoffs are the Pittsburgh equivalent of freeway chases that pollute local newscasts in Los Angeles.)

All three Pittsburgh stations like to label stories out of the Middle East as breaking news, and, in some instances, it's probably warranted.

But stations abuse the urgency of the term when it's applied to stories about a brush fire that's near no buildings (all three stations, April 25) or the verdict in a court case that was handed down four hours earlier (KDKA, May 3).

For some viewers, including Nielsen families, who get burned by looking up too often at a story that doesn't warrant the label, it will only give them another reason to hold local TV stations in contempt or turn them off. In the long run, local stations only hurt themselves.

National 'breaking news'

It's not just the local stations that have pummeled and abused the term to the point of meaninglessness. On Tuesday, CNN sent out a "Breaking News" e-mail to subscribers saying a jetliner had crashed in Tunisia. On the network's Web site, the headline said the plane made an emergency landing. But clicking on the link pulled up a story that said, "It is not clear whether the plane landed safely or crashed. ..."

If a news organization doesn't have the facts straight and if the story has no immediate impact on viewers, why not wait for confirmation of the story instead of reporting inaccurate information?

NBC's big party

Surprise, surprise. "NBC's 75th Anniversary Special," which aired for more than three hours Sunday night, was more entertaining than expected.

Though it had its share of technical glitches and awkward moments, the special radiated a sense of self-deprecating humor that's too rare among media conglomerates.

Credit "Saturday Night Live" executive producer Lorne Michaels, who was in charge of the NBC special, for plucking some of the peacock's plumage.

Jerry Seinfeld kicked things off with a monologue that reminded me how much I miss his show. ("Our mood is festive, our tone is self-aggrandizing," he said.) A Martin Short theme songs segment was funny, and NBC grand poobah Bob Wright made good use of his "Who's that?" presence, introducing a reel of the network's embarrassments, including clips from 1980 variety show disaster "Pink Lady."

The last 45 minutes seemed to consist of more commercials than show, but otherwise this particular nostalgia-fest was more entertaining than many.

While we're on the subject of NBC's history, it's worth noting that Johnny Carson briefly emerged from his self-imposed exile, not for NBC's anniversary show, but for an interview in the June issue of Esquire. Writer Bill Zehme reverently updates readers at length on Carson's life 10 years after retiring from "The Tonight Show."

TV talkback

In a new commercial for the breast cancer program at Magee-Womens Hospital, a little girl examines a bra as a female announcer says, "You've always wanted breasts." Surely I'm not the only guy who talks back to the TV and says, "No, not really."

One reader e-mailed to say he and his wife thought the spot was in "poor taste," adding, "[I] doubt anyone would use a 10-year-old boy to tout treatment for testicular cancer. ..."

Of course, this ad isn't meant for me or any other men. It uses warm fuzzies in an attempt to speak to women and encourage smart preventive care, but employing a young girl to do it makes me squirm a little, too.

'Frontline' special

Tonight at 9, PBS's "Frontline" on WQED-TV airs "Muslims," a two-hour program that explores what it means to be Muslim with reporting from Iran, Nigeria, Egypt, Malasyia, Turkey and the United States.

'Agency' season finale

CBS's "The Agency" ends its first season tonight at 10 having developed into a decent spy yarn. It took time, but the show eventually got up to speed, developing its characters and their relationships.

My only concern is that in trying to construct a more interesting show, producers were too willing to toss believability and reality aside.

In last week's episode, graphic artist Terri Lowell (Paige Turco) went into the field to protect a family that had gone undercover. When Terri suspected they were being watched, she didn't bother to call for backup. Tonight she gets sent on a mission that has nothing to do with her job as a CIA graphic artist, which, again, seems unreal.

Tonight's cliffhanger leaves one character's career in jeopardy, another one's life hanging in the balance and the results of a possible terrorist attack also unknown.

"The Agency" is on the bubble to return in the fall, but it deserves another shot in a better time slot.

Giving it another chance would also allow producers the opportunity to write for the characters in ways that make sense.

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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