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Turkey Awards find fodder in T V repeats, scare tactics

Saturday, November 16, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

This is the fifth annual "turkeys" column devoted to broadcasting flubs and bad practices, and although it's not my goal to ruin anyone's Thanksgiving, there's always that potential.

So let's start with something positive: The sweeps period that ended yesterday produced the least sensational, most useful features and investigations in recent memory.

Aside from the usual obnoxious TV news trappings -- Breaking news! News alert! Only on! Exclusive! -- the sweeps features were surprisingly strong. From a sober Peggy Finnegan-WPXI report on merchants' efforts to prevent child abductions to a Yvonne Zanos-KDKA report on the problems of having too many credit cards, there was surprisingly little for stations to be ashamed of.

But that's just November; we've still got 10 other months to cull from. Read on.

Repeats

Viewers already have to wade through repeats in prime time, and now they're getting them in newscasts. Local stations frequently repeat stories from the past week in their weekend morning broadcasts, and now KDKA has taken to repeating stories on weekdays.

A reader e-mailed to complain about what KDKA bills as its "6:45 a.m. Special Report," which is generally just a story that aired previously in a different newscast.

"I realize they are counting on a different audience for the morning news," the viewer wrote, "but surely I am not the only one in the area who knows that these stories are old and not nearly interesting enough to be touted as 'SPECIAL REPORT.' "

The reruns now extend to KDKA's 4 p.m. news. A Dr. Maria Simbra story on siblings and transplants aired in the 5 p.m. news in early November and repeated Monday during the 4 p.m. news.

That's one way to fill a newscast, but adding reporters who could offer fresh stories would be preferable.

L.A. on the Three Rivers?

Back in September, viewers complained about WPXI's coverage of a "breaking news" story as Chopper 11 chased a car being trailed by police.

The best (read worst) part was anchor Bob Bruce's breathless play-by-play of the video. "He barely misses the car!" Bruce said as the video showed the suspect driving recklessly but clearing other vehicles without coming close to hitting them. "Right there! He knows Chopper 11 is on top of him!"

Such breathless coverage for such a nonstory.

Watch what you say

For a story about a rape that occurred in a restaurant bathroom, WPGH anchor Jay Harris read a script that began, "The fate of the accused Primanti Bros. rapist..." which makes it sound like someone raped the Primanti brothers.

In a WTAE report the day after the election, Whitney Drolen referred to it as governor-elect Ed Rendell's "first day in office," but that won't happen until Rendell's inauguration.

In October, Channel 4's Scott Baker read a tease for a story that mixed domestic diva slogans: "The authorities kick it up a notch on Martha Stewart." Of course, "kick it up a notch" is an Emeril line, not "a good thing" to confuse with Stewart.

Getting burned

KDKA got burned in its "breaking news" coverage of a gas station explosion in May.

The station put a man on the air who called in by telephone claiming to be an eyewitness. The man said he was walking his dogs when he heard an explosion that he thought was caused by one of the dogs passing gas. Then he hung up, leaving the anchors befuddled.

"It serves KDKA right after being so dramatic about 'breaking news,' " wrote a viewer who sent e-mail about the incident.

Know your place

When "The West Wing" was here filming in August, Gov. Mark Schweiker wanted to visit the set of the NBC drama. Although it didn't work out, I can understand why he'd want to meet the stars and see how Hollywood can contribute to the local economy.

But elected officials need to be careful not to create too much of a ruckus. When TV or movie productions come to Pennsylvania, they spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars every minute. Having to take time out to greet a dignitary is not something producers want to add to their schedule or budget.

If our elected leaders want Hollywood productions to continue to make occasional visits to the state, the L.A. folks need to be left alone to do their work while they're here.

Presumptuous

In the Jan. 12 issue of TV Guide, "Today" newsreader Ann Curry reacted to Katie Couric's decision to stay with the top-rated morning show.

"Being on 'Today' is like being Cinderella at the ball. Had Katie [chosen] to leave, I could see having fun at that job. [But] we've got something great, and I don't want it to go away."

What makes her think she was even in the running for Couric's job?

Why 24-hour news is awful

Viewers need look no further than the near-constant coverage of last month's sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area for confirmation that breaking news is broken.

With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, cable and broadcast networks let no possibility go unmentioned in an unending stream of speculation from both news personnel and "experts." Better yet, much of it -- the shooter would be white, he drove a white van -- turned out to be wrong.

When there's no news to report, please, just shut your mouths.

Pot. Kettle. Black.

After a semi-indignant "How dare they!" report in March on Fox lowering standards by airing "Celebrity Boxing," "Today" host Matt Lauer had the ideal response: "What's next? Playmates on 'Fear Factor'? Oh, we did that. Sorry."

Pot. Kettle. Black. II.

In a February sweeps report on expensive pots and pans that a salesman claimed wouldn't cause disease, unlike other pots and pans that he said might, WTAE investigative reporter Jim Parsons asked, "Can we ask you why you use scare tactics to sell pots and pans?"

And why do TV stations use scare tactics to get viewers to watch their sweeps reports?

A turkey for me

Last week, KDKA started promoting a Monday night special report on the status of anchor Jennifer Antkowiak, out on maternity leave with her fourth child. Needless to say, I was salivating at the chance to take the station to task for shameless self-promotion.

Darned if they didn't pull it off with a light touch and tongue-in-cheek writing.

"The mere thought of it is enough to render perfectly normal people speechless," anchor Susan Barnett said, playing it straight in a self-parodying introduction. "Some react with fear, others with shock."

"We're talking about the rate at which KDKA's Jennifer Antkowiak has been giving birth -- four kids in five years," Ken Rice said, ending the typical TV news hyperbole.

"Thank you for letting us invade your privacy," Rice told Antkowiak at the report's close.

"Thank you for letting us use you during sweeps" would have been more accurate, but someone at KDKA deserves credit for turning a cheesy bit of fluff into something at least a little subversive.


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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