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TV series' visibility feather in city's hat

Thursday, October 03, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

No matter how hard local tourism officials or the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance works to promote this city, nothing can compare to the free publicity Pittsburgh now gets during each week's opening credits of CBS's "The Guardian."

Revamped from the show's first- season title sequence, the new look of the Pittsburgh-set legal drama's opening is surely creator David Hollander's ode to his hometown.

Shots of Downtown -- from the West End Bridge, over Gateway Center, over One Oxford Centre -- are seen, some in their natural color, others in a golden hue appropriate for the Golden Triangle.

Combined with a new theme song by Jakob Dylan that's performed by The Wallflowers, Pittsburgh looks amazing. And it will probably continue to look good in upcoming episodes. Cast and crew return to Downtown the latter part of next week to shoot scenes for episodes that will air during November sweeps.

It's not just "The Guardian" that's making Western Pennsylvania look good. Last week's season premiere of "The West Wing" was filmed here to acclaim from the show's producers, and ABC's TV movie about the rescue of the nine Quecreek miners wrapped up its Somerset stint yesterday.

Though it's possible "The Guardian" and ABC's TV movie would film in Southwestern Pennsylvania regardless, the "West Wing" shoot was all the doing of the Pittsburgh Film Office. Without the Film Office, there would have been no one to recruit "The West Wing," to help producers scout the area.

"We're an integral part of this region's image," said Film Office director Dawn Keezer. "Every single image people see on the small screen or large screen changes the perception of what people believe is here. 'The Guardian' has created a postcard to the city of the new image of what's here now. That's a message they're sending to [millions of] viewers each week. No, I didn't make David Hollander be from here, but we've helped him make his vision a reality."

Visiting the Quecreek mine Monday for a future story on ABC's movie, I saw many production crew members sporting T-shirts commemorating the filming of numerous TV shows and movies in the Pittsburgh area, "West Wing," "Wonder Boys" and "Inspector Gadget" most prominently.

Regular readers of this column know I prefer to leave politics to political writers, but with all the recent TV production to come our way, the time seems right to speak up on behalf of the Film Office, which runs out of funding at the end of the year.

"You'll see a dramatic slowdown in production or it will be nonexistent, I don't know which," Keezer said. "We're hopeful we'll find funding. We have commitments from some very important people who say they'll try to help us get funding, but no commitment for funding for 2003."

Keezer said "The West Wing" spent more than $1 million in the region during its August shoot. She estimated that the Film Office spent no more than $2,000 courting and supporting "The West Wing," not counting the time of Keezer and her staff. Seems like a good return on the investment to me.

"We didn't have to build a farm, we didn't build a new road, we didn't give them a tax increment financing deal," she said. "They come and spend their money and they leave. And they hired all local people for the most part, including local actors."

Pittsburgh's film/TV production has been feast (the current state) or famine (the past year until August), but without the Film Office, famine is likely to reign. That would be a shame for the behind-the-scenes people employed locally as film crews, for the region's national visibility and for locals who get an impromptu lesson in media literacy by participating or just watching filming occur.

It may seem self-serving for a TV critic to endorse TV show production, but it's not. There's more television than I can cover as it is, and when a TV show comes to film, it's just one more thing on my plate.

I like to see TV shows shoot here for all the logical reasons (economic benefits, an opportunity to export a current image of the city) but also for the intangibles: seeing the excitement "West Wing" created among Lawrence County residents, knowing fans of "The Guardian" are flying in from out of town to observe next week's shoot.

And there's value in the cultural implications. Local, professional TV/film production provides entertainment and education to consumers of TV and film, who, for a brief time, get to peer behind the curtain.

WQED sings

Aretha Franklin will take to the stage for the next concert in WQED's "American Soundtrack" series.

Pledge producer T.J. Lubinsky said Franklin will headline "Rhythm, Love and Soul," which will be taped at the Benedum on Nov. 26 for airing nationally on PBS stations during March pledge.

Franklin will perform several songs, including "Respect" and "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman."

Other singers participating include Gloria Gaynor, Lou Rawls, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, Teddy Pendergrass and Thelma Houston.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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