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Station wasn't only one with 'exclusive' story

Thursday, November 14, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Perhaps "sweeps" means never having to say you're sorry. That could explain why WTAE labeled an interview at 5 p.m. Tuesday night as "exclusive" even though the same Greensburg school bus driver was interviewed at 5 p.m. on KDKA and later on WPGH's 10 p.m. news.

Or maybe it's simply that all's fair in hype and ratings competition.

To its credit, Channel 4 discontinued calling the interview "exclusive" when the story aired again at 6 p.m. But why risk being wrong by labeling an interview "exclusive"?

Better to adhere to the old writing axiom "show, don't tell." If one station is truly better than another, consistently superior reporting will show that and viewers will figure it out. They don't need to be told both in a newscast and in the incessant promos.

Promo trouble

Leave it to the promos to do a disservice to decent reports by making them sound more incendiary than they turn out to be.

Rick Earle's WPXI report about stolen IDs at USX Tower was interesting, but because the ID cards weren't activated and wouldn't have allowed much access to the building, the report didn't live up to the hype.

Same with a Jim Parsons WTAE report on a fire started by a radical environmental group in the Allegheny National Forest. It was a good story, but promos about a domestic terrorist threat -- "Who are they? When will they strike again?" -- were predictably overhyped and obviously intended to make viewers think of 9/11-type terrorists.

That said, this month has provided mostly decent, informative, even educational sweeps stories, including an Andy Sheehan KDKA report on sweetheart sales deals on city land and a Paul Martino KDKA report on state legislators using tax dollars to fund campaign ads thinly disguised as "public service announcements."

Behind-the-scenes battle

I was particularly curious to see how local stations would handle reports on TV projects filmed locally because, well, that's part of my beat.

On Tuesday, WTAE's Wendy Bell reported on ABC's Nov. 24 TV movie about the rescue of the nine Quecreek miners. The report began by focusing more on the miners than on the movie but went on to include interviews with key production personnel and details about where scenes were shot.

One little problem: In a graphic, the station managed to screw up the punctuation of the film's title, calling it "The Pennsylvania Miner's Story" when it should be "The Pennsylvania Miners' Story."

That's a negligible objection compared to KDKA's Tuesday report, voiced by anchor Susan Barnett, about Simon Baker, star of "The Guardian." Who knows who wrote it, but it sounded like an entry in a preteen girl's diary and erased any doubts that the 5 p.m. news is geared to women.

"Simon Baker is hot," Barnett said. "The blond hair, the green eyes, that smile, that laugh -- he's the guy women everywhere want to know better."

That's as bad as if I wrote, "Susan Barnett is hot. The blond hair, her green eyes, that smile, the laugh -- she's the woman guys everywhere want to know better."

Thankfully, at 11 p.m. reporter Ralph Iannotti, who appeared as a reporter in Tuesday's episode of "The Guardian," turned in a more informative, less exclamatory report on local filming of the CBS series.

Pittsburghese on TV!

This week's "The Guardian" introduced a hint of Pittsburghese. In a scene filmed last month in a Downtown parking lot, a local actor playing an attendant said, "N'at."

It was one small step in realistic dialect for "The Guardian," one giant leap for Pittsburgh-kind.


Wendy Bell's man-on-the-street feature reports during Channel 4's 5 p.m. news are sorely missed, although it remains my preferred newscast in the time slot for its generous mix of hard news and lighter, pop-culture stories.

Susan Koeppen has easily stepped into Bell's consumer role, testing gadgets and reporting on consumer issues (credit reports last week).

KDKA's Dave Crawley remains Pittsburgh's go-to guy for smart, knowing features. Earlier this month, he interviewed Pittsburghers to see if anyone could remember the city's new, long-winded holiday season slogan. He even used the "too many notes" clip from "Amadeus," an oldie but a goodie.

His sign-off was especially funny: "Wishing you a merry 'Downtown Pittsburgh, a holiday tradition with a new twist,' I'm Dave Crawley."

Humanizing WPXI

For a long time, Channel 11's newscasts moved at a breakneck speed with no time spent on anchor chatter or even questions an anchor would toss to a reporter. A few months ago, I noticed a slight softening in that approach, a question here, a comment there.

WPXI news director Pat Maday said the change was intentional and it kicked off on the first anniversary of Sept. 11.

"I just felt we had to be different that day," he said. "You can still be a fast-paced newscast, and what I like to see is not chitchat, but humanity and soul."

Even as Maday allowed anchors a slight bit of ad-libbing, he took anchor David Johnson off PCNC's "NightTalk with John McIntire," where Johnson would sometimes appear just before the start of the 10 p.m. news.

It's a shame, because Johnson and McIntire had an excellent rapport. "NightTalk" seemed like a logical venue for Johnson to cut loose and give his Tom Brokaw impression a workout.

"There are better ways to show that side of Dave," Maday said, pointing to PCNC's "Talkback Live" (6:30 p.m. weeknights). "That forum allows him to be less constrained by the format of the newscast."

Mystery solved

Last week in this space, WQED's T.J. Lubinsky was seeking help in tracking down a singing group called The Castle Sisters who appeared on "The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show."

Lubinsky heard from more than 200 people and learned that the sisters, from Charleroi, now live in Florida. They gave up singing to raise their families in the late 1950s.

Praising 'Scrubs'

For whatever reason, too many viewers who tune in for NBC's "Friends" aren't sticking around for "Scrubs" (8:30 tonight, WPXI). That's too bad, because the hospital-set comedy is having a stellar second season.

Sometimes the action is goofy, and the show does rely on sound effects to add to the hilarity, but all the characters are so extremely human, with foibles and quirks viewers can sympathize with or even see in themselves.

Tonight's episode, with a second guest turn by the always game-for-fun Heather Locklear, offers up the typical "Scrubs" combination of humor and heart. Skip boring, tired "Survivor: Thailand" and slap on some "Scrubs."

'Robbery' mistake

CBS's low-rated but critically acclaimed drama "Robbery Homicide Division" got no help from its network Friday night when a technical glitch resulted in the teaser scene never airing. The first scene after the opening credits aired twice.

A rebroadcast of the episode has not been scheduled.

Holiday programming

The calls have already started from readers who want to know when the Post-Gazette will publish its annual listing of Christmas and holiday specials. As always, that comprehensive list will be published in the Thanksgiving Day edition of the PG.

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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