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Program interruptions are growing annoyance

Thursday, October 10, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

TV's clutter culture continues to worsen. For years advertisers have complained about too many station and network promos making a mess of the airwaves. That bothers viewers too, I'm sure, but perhaps not as much as the program interruptions last Thursday.

First, during "Friends," WPXI interrupted about a minute of the show with meteorologist Steve Teeling talking about a fairly routine severe thunderstorm warning. It could just as easily have been handled with a crawl, which is what competing stations put on the air.

Second, at about 9:55 p.m., several stations, including KDKA, WNPA and WTAE, interrupted programs with a crawl and voice-over about an Amber Alert for Scranton that had no relevance to Western Pennsylvania.

Phil Cresswell from Monroeville e-mailed to complain about Channel 11's weather interruption.

"If they keep this up, they'll make these shows utterly unwatchable," Cresswell wrote. "Is it the station's point to drive viewers away these days? I thought it was their point to keep viewers. Go figure...."

WPXI news director Pat Maday said Teeling made the decision to interrupt "Friends" but added, "we could have done that better."

"Would I have rather we scrolled the information first and broken in during the first commercial? Yes. Did we do it that way the rest of the evening? Yes."

Indeed, during "Scrubs," Teeling came on during a commercial break.

Maday said it's important to balance the need to let viewers know about severe weather bulletins with the need to not disrupt scheduled programs.

Teeling did not return a call seeking comment, but Maday said attaining the requisite balance is discussed frequently.

"One of the last things I said before leaving [Thursday night as weather warnings kept being issued] was, 'Remember, Final Jeopardy! is coming.' We need to do this, but we need to be mindful and take 10 seconds to say, 'Where are we in this?' "

Weather may also have contributed to Pittsburgh viewers seeing the Amber Alert that wasn't applicable to the area. Representatives from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which dispatches the alerts, and the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters could not say definitively how the alert got on the air here.

PEMA spokeswoman Maria Smith said a clean message left PEMA, directed at stations in the northeastern part of the state with coding indicating the counties affected. The FCC mandates a process by which one station passes the message to another until all in the state receive the notice, Smith said.

It's possible the message degraded or computer equipment at Pittsburgh stations misread the coding for the affected areas. Another possibility is that master control operators mistook it for another weather alert and put it on the air.

The Amber Alert began with a blaring klaxon and featured a red scroll at the top of the screen. A voice provided information on the alert that interrupted dialogue on CBS's "CSI" and ABC's "Push, Nevada," a mystery series that gives out clues that can help viewers win a $1 million prize.

Dave Kasperek, director of engineering at WTAE, said stations obviously want to air Amber Alerts that are valid for areas their stations serve, but they don't want to disrupt programs needlessly.

Kasperek said Channel 4 will revise instructions to control room operators that they must read the complete list of counties affected with every Emergency Alert System activation. If the operator doesn't see a county in the station's viewing area on the list, the alert won't air. KDKA has adopted the same procedure. WPXI, WPGH and WCWB did not air the Amber Alert, recognizing it didn't apply to Western Pennsylvania.

In the future, changing the distribution method may help avoid mistakes. Dale Gehman, vice president of the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters and chairman of the Pennsylvania Emergency Alert System, said he hopes to have most Pennsylvania stations switched over to a new digital system within a year. The new system would give stations a direct link to PEMA.

Anything that limits unnecessary interruptions will, no doubt, be appreciated by viewers.

Broken news alert!

WPXI has borrowed a page from the KDKA playbook (and KDKA had swiped it from the cable networks).

After wearing out the "Breaking News" sound effect and graphics to the point of meaninglessness, Channel 11 is now offering a "News Alert" on stories that have already "broken" but in which new information has developed.

No local station is blameless when it comes to hyping stories for a sense of immediacy and dire import, but WTAE news director Bob Longo offered an amusing take on the latest iteration.

"We're going to go with 'News Inkling,' " he said, clearly joking, "We think it sums it up. 'News That Is Very Strange But Just Reportable' is too long. 'Spidey Sense' didn't sum it up enough."

Stale 'Access'

A reader e-mailed to ask why "Access Hollywood," which airs on WTAE at 12:30 p.m., is a day old. Easy answer: Each show is taped in the afternoon on the West Coast and isn't available until evening for East Coast stations.

For "Access," being on in the daytime in our market, even if it reports day-old entertainment news, is better than its previous time slot in the wee hours of the morning.

WTAE general manager Rick Henry said "Access" airs a day late in other markets as well. There are no current plans for Channel 4 to move the show to a later time slot that would allow for a same-day airing.

Rogers reads on 'Rockets'

"Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers" airs as a new five-part, weekly series beginning Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on WQED.

Each episode aims to teach parents how to better help their children to learn to read. Rotating celebrity hosts open and close each episode. Fred Rogers hosts Sunday's premiere.

'24' reruns

After "24" returns to Fox with new episodes on Oct. 29, reruns will air on sister cable network FX the following Monday at 11 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to TV Forum.

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