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On the Tube: May sweeps yielded some good stories

Thursday, May 23, 2002

Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Phew. It's over. Done. Finito. That's all folks. It's a wrap.

Sure, the 2001-02 television season is history, but more importantly, May sweeps ended yesterday. That means the level of promotions hype emanating from local stations can return to loud and obnoxious, down from the sweeps state of extremely shrill and fright-inducing.

Hyperbole on my part? Perhaps, but not far off.

Whatever the level of hype to draw viewers, reports airing during sweeps ran the gamut.

In addition to its regular investigations, WTAE took a different approach, running several "celebrity" profiles during its 11 p.m. newscasts. Michelle Wright's interview with wrestler Kurt Angle actually contained some news (he's considering competing in the Olympics again), but Wendy Bell's report on WDVE morning show host Jim Krenn was nauseatingly saccharine ("He loves his family, adopts animals, he's one of you through and through"), which may have been intentional, but was still gag worthy.

All three stations did stories on the release of the latest "Star Wars" film, but KDKA's Kelli Olexia was the only reporter I saw brandishing a light saber.

It appeared all the stations relied on statistics off a computer to generate stories about hanging or pushover judges when it comes to speeding tickets (WTAE), burglary rates (WPXI) and what lawmakers spend (KDKA).

KDKA's "You Paid for It" series with Paul Martino, a worthwhile venture, seemed to inspire WPXI's Alan Jennings, who used the "you paid for it" phrase in a report on missing PennDOT equipment.

My one complaint with both reporters is the level of attitude they bring to bear. A Jennings story on narrow lanes on the turnpike -- a legitimate story -- was punctuated with unnecessary commentary.

"In case the turnpike didn't notice," he sniffed, before describing differences in shoulder space in and out of work zones.

Martino gave awards to legislators who abuse their perk privileges, calling one "the lawmaker who demonstrates the ultimate in thumbing his nose at the public while you pick up his tabs at the best restaurants in Harrisburg."

That tone only makes the reporters look haughty and demeans their otherwise useful work.

Other good stories: Jim Parsons' reports on limousine drivers for WTAE, Andy Gastmeyer's series on bar beatings in the Strip for WPXI and Andy Sheehan's story on county overspending for KDKA.

Some of WTAE's "Commitment 2002" reports were informative and helped viewers distinguish between the truth and the hype in recent campaign commercials. But a story by Whitney Drolen at the end of April just made her interview subjects look stupid because they knew little about the election and issues.

"When you go to the lake to catch something, what do you catch?" she asked one man, baiting him to say the name of candidate Mike Fisher.

The whole report was similar in style to something Wendy Bell could get away with on a light and frivolous feature, but seemed out of place for a "Commitment 2002" piece.

News still 'breaking'

Though I fear I'm beginning to sound like a broken record when it comes to local stations' over-reliance on the phrase "breaking news," viewers seem to agree it's a problem. My column two weeks ago provoked the most response of any column in memory, with almost two-dozen people writing and e-mailing their own frustrations.

"You must have been reading my mind," wrote a Pittsburgh viewer.

" 'Breaking news' has become a joke," wrote a Bethel Park woman.

"The term should be used for things like gunmen holding someone hostage, plane crashes or a tornado heading into our towns," wrote a viewer from South Park.

"If something is 'breaking news' at 5, should it be followed at 11 in the past tense as 'broken news'?" asked a man from Cranberry.

"It's more like 'breaking wind,' " wrote a wiseacre from Bethel Park.

KD commercialism

KDKA continues to allow too many of its news personalities to front what are essentially commercials.

Not long ago Lynn Hayes-Freeland did her annual stint as pitchwoman in a spot for a Dollar Bank "mortgages for mothers" workshop.

Now Jennifer Antkowiak, Mary Robb Jackson and Brenda Waters are featured in "a WomenCare message by Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC Healthcare System" talking about symptoms of auto-immune disorders.

There's nothing wrong about the message in either of these spots, but reporters should not be asked to appear in a commercial or quasi-public service announcement with a single sponsor. It creates the perception, at least, of a conflict of interest, especially for a reporter like Jackson, who often covers health issues and interviews doctors at area hospitals.

If UPMC becomes a news story and any of these women are called on to report on the story, viewers may legitimately wonder what influence their participation in the spot had in their reporting of the story. Do I really think any of them would be compromised? No, but it's a matter of perception.

KDKA director of marketing Mike Gerst defended their involvement.

"This is not selling cars," he said. "If they have to cover a Magee story, they certainly would and be as objective as they normally are. They're not paid. This is a perfect example of how public and private can bring a message to people together in partnership as opposed to it not airing at all."

Time's up

Fox's innovative, rip-roaring action-drama-soap "24" came to a halt Tuesday with a shocking season finale that left Dennis Hopper's Victor Drazen dead, CTU mole Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) in handcuffs and poor Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) grieving for his wife, Teri (Leslie Hope), who apparently was killed by Nina.

With "24," you never know, but wonder no more. A Fox publicist confirmed Teri is as dead as she looked.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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