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Tuned In: WTAE manager seeks 'an aggressive edge'

Thursday, August 15, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

On the job five months, WTAE general manager Rick Henry faces many challenges, but the most daunting could be the eventual retirement of meteorologist Joe DeNardo.

"He took this station to a leadership position and held onto it. The reality is, Joe loves what he's doing, and I don't think retirement is on his radar screen," Henry said. "We feel fortunate for that."

DeNardo has at least a couple years left on his current contract, and if Henry has any concerns about what will happen to the station's ratings when DeNardo does step down, he's not letting them show.

"Of all the things I'm working on, that's not at the top of my list right now," Henry said. "Joe leaving certainly could happen on my watch, but he's not talking about leaving soon. We certainly want him to stay as long as he wants."

Henry, who had a previous stint as vice president of sales at WTAE from 1988 to 1996, came back to Channel 4 earlier this year after working as general manager at WISN, the Hearst-Argyle station in Milwaukee. Though he's not ready to talk about life after DeNardo, he is willing to entertain ideas about the evening news lead-in after "The Oprah Winfrey Show" ceases production in 2006.

This fall WTAE will air "Dr. Phil" at 10 a.m. weekdays, and that show could move into Oprah's spot.

"If you look at ratings over the last year or so, on Tuesday when Dr. Phil appears [on 'Oprah,' the ratings are] always much stronger," Henry said. "We can't predict the future of how everything goes; conventional wisdom is he may be a likely replacement for Oprah someday."

Henry came to Pittsburgh's ABC affiliate at a time when the network is providing a dismal lead-in most nights for the 11 p.m. news, but he said it's less of an issue here. Henry said a recent ABC study showed that WTAE has the third-highest delivery of viewers during prime time in the country. WTAE and KDKA have typically performed better than their networks' national prime-time averages while WPXI and WPGH tend to underperform.

Still, Henry, like many ABC station executives, hasn't decided whether to carry ABC's new late-night show hosted by Jimmy Kimmel when it premieres in January.

"That's an open question for most affiliates," Henry said. "They're asking for an hour of programming and shedding a half-hour, so they're looking for an extra half-hour out of local affiliates, which is a puzzle."

On the news side, Henry is happy with the station's performance, particularly in the morning news race since the addition of Wendy Bell as an anchor. Unlike his predecessor -- news director-turned-general manager Jim Hefner, who liked to spend a lot of time in the newsroom -- Henry said he's not involved in day-to-day coverage decisions, focusing instead on long-term vision and goals for the news department.

Channel 4 had the highest ratings the night of the miners' rescue last month, which could bode well for the station's future.

"Those are what are called defining moments in local news coverage," Henry said. "They're very important because you want people to know that we'll be there and they'll get the coverage they're looking for. Opinions are probably formed more so during those defining moments than on day-to-day news coverage."

Henry said the station will increase its Friday night coverage of high school football, initiate greater coverage of Pitt football and will offer more Steelers games (four during the regular season) in the coming months.

Despite the tight competition, his goal is to achieve "a clear leadership position" by retaining good people and "adding an aggressive edge in the way we gather and cover news and, on the business side, the way we sell and educate advertisers."

Henry also spoke of the importance of getting the digital signals of local stations passed through by cable operators. He said Channel 4 will continue to broadcast in high definition rather than carving up the spectrum for other purposes.

More Emmys

In addition to the 14 regional Emmy nominations WQED received this week, the station got word that an "On Q" report has been nominated for a national Emmy.

Producer Gina Catanzarite's "Project Hope," a three-part story on Russian orphans, was nominated in the category of National Community Service. (A WQED spokesman said 20 of the 21 orphans have been adopted since the story aired.)

This national Emmy shouldn't be confused with the prime-time Emmys, announced last month, which included an outstanding animated program (one hour or more) nomination for Discovery Channel's "When Dinosaurs Roamed America." Don Waller, a 1974 North Hills High School graduate, was animation director on the program.

One last Emmy note: The Mid-Atlantic Emmy nominations list (and subsequently yesterday's story in this space) misspelled the name of former WTAE executive producer Jodi Gralnick.

'24' marathon

FX announced yesterday that it will air the entire first season of the drama series "24" in a 24-hour Labor Day marathon beginning at midnight Sunday, Sept. 1, and ending at midnight Monday, Sept. 2.

Slap happy?

The slap heard 'round the region has certainly gotten people talking. From grocery store aisles to radio shows, reports that WPXI anchor Gina Redmond slapped another woman at a party Saturday night over a prior professional dispute is a conversation piece for all the obvious reasons.

It's titillating, embarrassing and grimly funny as it brings to mind the worst soap opera cliches. Call it "As the Newsroom Turns," a public airing of dirty laundry that piques our prurient interests and became news because it involved a public figure. Both parties will have an opportunity to state their case in a hearing next month.

If nothing else, this incident proves one thing: Pittsburgh needs a local version of "Saturday Night Live." Can you imagine the hay that would be made of this on a professionally produced, locally televised sketch comedy show? Perhaps that's part of the local programming mix the new Channel 16 will offer.

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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