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Tuned In: British biographer takes on Quecreek

Thursday, August 22, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

He's written biographies of Madonna, Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky, but the featured subjects in British author Andrew Morton's next book are decidedly less glamorous.

Morton recently spent several weeks conducting interviews in Shanksville, Johnstown and the Somerset area for a book he's writing about the rescued Quecreek miners.

"I've always wanted to write an adventure, and they don't come more adventurous than this," Morton said.

He said the book, titled "Nine for Nine: The Pennsylvania Mine Miracle," will be in stores worldwide on Nov. 6. That's a fast turnaround, faster even than his Lewinsky book, he said.

"It's a pity other people are doing it," Morton said, "but I think mine will hopefully be the first and the best."

He said he interviewed most of the miners before they signed a book/movie deal with Disney.

"Having been Diana's biographer was a useful calling card. I found the people in Somerset just real salt-of-the-earth characters, straightforward and plain dealing."

Morton said he had a memorable conversation with miner Randy Fogle about the Disney deal.

"I was saying to him, 'For three days you were up to your neck in water, and now you're up to your ears in bull----.' He was chewing his tobacco and spit into his polystyrene cup and said, 'Yep, that's about right,' " Morton recalled. "I love those guys. They're very funny."

Even before his Quecreek book is published, Morton will be in the public eye in a new way. CBS's movie "The Biographer" (9 p.m. Sept. 1) details his relationship with Princess Diana while writing "Diana: Her True Story." It's the ultimate in pulling back a curtain to reveal the process.

"It's bizarre," Morton said in a phone interview yesterday. "I prefer to be on the other side of the bars at the zoo looking in at the exotic beasts rather than be one of the beasts being looked at."

Morton said a German producer came to him with the idea for turning his story into a movie. The producer was intrigued by the story of Diana "confiding her innermost thoughts to someone she doesn't know particularly well," Morton said. "He thought it was a bizarre relationship, rather like Deep Throat in 'All the President's Men.' "

Morton also said the difference between the image and the reality of Diana and the royal family was appealing.

"It gives you a sense of the drama and the intrigue," he said, adding that Diana's face is never seen in the film.

Actor Paul McGann plays Morton; he's not a dead ringer for the author.

"He's 5-foot-8 and I'm 6-foot-4. There's a huge disparity in size," Morton said. "I thought he was very earnest and his performance was very convincing because it was a very tense time. I would have liked to have a few more of the funny lines. My publisher, played in the film by Brian Cox, seemed to get all those."

Channel 11 changes

New reporters will aim for the bull's-eye in WPXI's Target 11 reports.

Alan Jennings and Andy Gastmeyer are out, Karen Welles and Rick Earle are in.

Channel 11 news director Pat Maday said Gastmeyer will take over the city/county/development/US Airways/political beat and Alan Jennings has moved to Earle's old assignment as Westmoreland County bureau chief.

Stu Brown, who had been covering local government, will be a general assignment reporter.

"Karen and Rick have distinguished themselves throughout their time here as two of the best enterprising reporters in this market," Maday said. "They break stories. It's that simple."

The move bodes well for Gastmeyer, a thoughtful reporter who frequently delivers thorough, substantive reports. He's essentially trading one high-profile beat for another.

The same can't be said for Jennings, whose clownish bravado long ago wore out its welcome. Earle and Welles will go a long way to giving future Target 11 reports more credibility.

Maday said moving Jennings is not a demotion.

"I guess I could see how you might think that's the case, but I don't necessarily view it that way," Maday said. "The Westmoreland area has a great number of viewers. He has an entire county as his beat and that's an important role. Alan lives in the county, so he knows the people and the places. He's bringing a great deal of enthusiasm to this new role."

Jennings did not return a call seeking comment.

Local cable ratings

Ratings, ratings, ratings. We spend a lot of time and space -- some would argue too much time, too much space -- poring over ratings reports to write about which TV station's newscast is on top in what time slot.

But we rarely examine cable ratings. Though I don't plan to make a habit of it, it's at least a little interesting to see how cable channels stack up locally.

When an almost 1,000-page May 2002 report of ratings for basic cable networks (HBO and other premium services not included) landed on my desk, I risked blurry vision by flipping through it to look at the tiny printed numbers.

The cable ratings book yielded some surprises.

With constant talk about the relatively high median age of Southwestern Pennsylvania residents, you'd think the History Channel or Discovery Channel would top the list in television households. Not so.

From 5 a.m. to 5 a.m. Sunday through Saturday, kids' channel and baby-sitter of choice Nickelodeon had the most viewers, more than double the ratings of the No. 2 cable channel, TBS. Networks that followed were Lifetime and Cartoon Network (tied), TNT and USA (tied), ESPN and A&E (tied), FX, TLC and TV Land (tied).

Nielsen Media Research provided year-to-date ranking of cable channels, which looks pretty similar, although it also includes premium channels. Nickelodeon is on top, followed by Lifetime, Cartoon Network, HBO, TBS, TNT, USA, A&E, Disney, Fox News Channel, Discovery, ESPN, TLC, MTV, CNN, FX, History Channel, TNN, HGTV and AMC.

Though cable ratings continue to rise, they still pale in comparison to ratings for the Big Three broadcast stations. Nickelodeon's 2.1 average rating locally in May was less than half the average ratings garnered by KDKA, WTAE or WPXI, though Nick was slightly ahead of other local stations.

For the month, the most popular basic cable shows in prime time in Pittsburgh homes were MTV's "The Osbournes," TNN's WWE Wrestling, FX coverage of Winston Cup Racing, Nickelodeon's "As Told by Ginger" (it got slightly higher ratings than uber-hit "SpongeBob SquarePants") and reruns of "The Cosby Show" on Nick at Nite. Cable ratings were noticeably lower on Thursday night, when there's particularly fierce competition from shows on CBS and NBC.

We're still 21!

Nielsen has released the rankings of America's television markets and the good news for Pittsburgh is that we're holding steady at No. 21 after declining from No. 19 over the past four years.

No additional counties were added to the Pittsburgh market, but the number of TV households will rise by 17,320 from 1,148,340 to 1,165,660 effective next month. A Nielsen spokeswoman attributed a portion of the increase to new census information.


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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