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Tuned In: In 2002, stations fixated on 'breaking news'

Thursday, January 02, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's not breaking news to say "breaking news" was the trend in Pittsburgh television in 2002. That's not even a "news alert."

But I could write that you'll read about it only on this page of the newspaper, and, unlike local stations that misidentified "exclusive" stories several times in the hotly contested November sweeps period, it would be accurate.

Here's a look back at local news trends in 2002 and a glimpse ahead at what we might expect to see in 2003.

Breaking news

In the wake of 9/11/01, stations played on viewers' fears by labeling anything and everything "breaking news." That begat "news alert." And in the rush to get on the air with news first, stations turned to an old standby: reports by telephone.

Joe Rovitto, a news consultant based in Pittsburgh and former WTAE news director and consultant to KDKA, said use of the telephone isn't a national trend but a product of the fierce competition in the Pittsburgh market.

"They're all approaching breaking news with a high degree of priority," Rovitto said. "And newscasts have expanded a lot, but there's only so much equipment and manpower to go around. It's a legitimate way to get the information on the air without going to traditional methods of doing it. Stations in the breaking news business recognize that what viewers want is the information, and they don't care if somebody is on the phone or standing in front of a camera."

WPXI news director Pat Maday said Pittsburgh's hilly terrain also complicates live reports and makes telephone reports more logistically feasible from some locations.

In addition, local stations now go to live footage from far-flung locales more often. A warehouse fire in Dallas? Stations will put it on the air if it's compelling.

WTAE news director Bob Longo said it's become technologically easier to get that kind of footage, and Maday said spectacular footage is always something stations want to get on the air.

"There was a story a couple weeks ago about the tornadoes whipping through the South, and some of the pictures that were live of the damage or fed from the satellite just minutes before were very compelling," Maday said. "We're certainly going to show them."

While news tickers across the bottom of the screen have become a staple on cable news networks, Pittsburgh stations use them sparingly so far (mostly for weather in the morning and sports scores on WPGH).

Rovitto said local stations elsewhere have embraced that trend, scrolling news in addition to weather, but that local executives showed little interest in adding it here.

"The ticker is not very popular with audiences," said WPGH news director John Poister. "They don't like the distraction, particularly on mainline newscasts."

News expansion

KDKA added a 4 p.m. newscast in 2002, a year after adding a 10 p.m. news to sister station WNPA. This past year, WPXI added "Pittsburgh This Morning" on PCNC. WPGH could still expand beyond 10 p.m., and Poister said a 4 p.m. newscast was considered before KDKA started one.

"I pushed hard for us to do something with 4 p.m., but one thing we didn't have that [KDKA] had was a solid lead-in," Poister said.

Rovitto said further expansion can be expected. Locally that could mean KDKA producing additional newscasts for WNPA, or maybe WPXI or WTAE will add a 4 p.m. news. Of the two, WPXI seems more likely because WTAE is probably locked into having "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in the 4 p.m. time slot.

Commercialism

I've griped about commercialism in KDKA's newscasts in the past, and WPXI still has a sponsor's logo on its "Weathernet" graphic. WPGH recently added a sponsored sports segment, "Alby's Blockbuster Video of the Week."

"We've always felt the sports guy could do that more than anybody else on the staff," Poister said of the segment by sports anchor Alby Oxenreiter. "We keep it out of news. We don't have our anchors or reporters doing that."

But Poister and Rovitto said that as the Pittsburgh market continues to shrink, viewers are likely to see more commercialism.

"You're going to see more and more sponsorships for individual aspects of the news," Poister said. "It's going to be out of necessity because the cost of putting on the news continues to go up, and they've got to find ways to pay for it."

Financial considerations also impact hiring at Pittsburgh stations. Now that Pittsburgh is market No. 21, down from its one-time spot in the Top 10, it's harder to attract more experienced reporters because of both financial concerns and the prestige factor.

"I had an easier job when it came to recruiting," Rovitto said of his time as WTAE's news director in the '80s. "Then people were coming here because Pittsburgh was a large enough market to settle in."

As its rank among Nielsen markets declines, Pittsburgh comes closer to a stepping-stone market that attracts less-experienced reporters willing to work for less money.

War plans

News directors at local stations say they've already brainstormed titles for coverage should war between the United States and Iraq break out in 2003. Several said they want their titles to complement network coverage titles. We'll have to wait to see if it's "Iraqi Invasion" or "Gulf War II" or "Gulf War 2."

Ratings race

The three-way horse race for first place in household ratings continued in 2002, and that seems unlikely to change much in 2003. That competition leads to "only on" and allegedly "exclusive" reports.

"They're trying to signal to their audience in every way they can think of, 'Hey, we're the ones if you want the latest,' " Rovitto said.

Things to watch: Will KDKA maintain its resurgence? Will WPXI lose traction?

In 2002, WTAE rebuilt and solidified its morning lead, which had grown shaky in 2000 and 2001 as WPXI tied WTAE at 6 a.m. in May 2000 and beat Channel 4 in February 2001. Now WTAE is back on top. Mornings remain an area of growth for local stations, particularly at 5 a.m.

2003 predictions

• WPXI and anchor Gina Redmond will part company.

• Stability rules at WTAE, but there will be several new hires at WPXI, which has weakened bench strength after the departures of solid reporter Steve Chenevey and excellent fill-in anchor/reporter Natasha Brown, a real loss.

• Possible changes to KDKA's weekend anchor team.

• The WQEX saga will grind on endlessly.

• With the threat of war and continued concerns about homeland terrorism, overall news viewership is likely to remain steady or climb.

• WTAE will solidify Don Schwenneker as No. 2 weathercaster. After he was called up to replace Stephen Cropper in the heir apparent spot, the main page of Channel 4's Web site showed a picture of Joe DeNardo alongside the current weather conditions. Now there's a picture of DeNardo and Schwenneker.

• TV news personalities will continue to get vacation time. That may seem like a no-brainer, but you wouldn't believe the number of phone calls I get from worried viewers any time an anchor/reporter/weathercaster is off the air for an extended period.

To be fair, stations have created this paranoia due to firings of popular personalities over the years (Patti Burns, Dennis Bowman, etc.), but unless you read about a dismissal here, assume the person is on vacation.


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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