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Sweeps elicits mixed bag of news, snooze

Thursday, February 06, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Investigative stories during sweeps run the gamut from useful and revealing to pointless he said-she said disputes. One week into February sweeps -- one of three important annual ratings periods when audience quantity and composition are measured -- Pittsburgh viewers have been treated to both.

The best report was by Karen Welles on WPXI about Marine recruiters who encourage prospective recruits to cheat on drug tests. Welles interviewed a former recruiter who admitted to the practice, and she talked with recruits who backed up his story. The commanding officer for recruiting in Western Pennsylvania is investigating the allegations.

A report by Andy Sheehan on KDKA was a follow-up to an earlier story about a backlog of work at the Allegheny County Crime Lab and a shooting that could have possibly been prevented if evidence had been analyzed in a more timely manner.

WTAE's Jim Parsons reported on a puppy peddler in Fayette County who sells sick, dying dogs to unwitting families.

These three stories all provided valuable information.

Other "investigations" have no such relevance. A Rick Earle report on WPXI about a woman who couldn't get her disabled sister out of a personal-care home seemed more like a personal dispute than a problem with the potential to impact many viewers.

See through fabric!

The most over-hyped, biggest time-waster thus far was a WTAE report by Chris Glorioso about so-called "X-ray vision" lenses that allow video cameras to see through clothing (but not, apparently, underwear).

It might have been a decent feature, but Channel 4 promoted it using a scary-voiced announcer and promises of revelations about "technology that violates your privacy."

I suppose it's possible, but how often do you see people walking down the street with a video camera pointed at strangers?

Harmless consumer fluff

Some look down their noses at the test-it stories that appear on local news, but from a consumer standpoint, I find it useful to know The Clapper doesn't work well (Susan Koeppen, WTAE) or the advantages/disadvantages of various new teeth-whitening products (Paul Nemiroff, KDKA).

Is this news? No, but there are certainly worse ways to fill up 90 minutes to three hours of evening news, which brings us to...

Pointless polls

Many polls that show up in newscasts, particularly those conducted online, exist for no good reason except that they're cheap, quick and an easy way to fill air time. Their uselessness really hit home this week when KDKA asked viewers, "Based on what you know, was [the space shuttle disaster] a freak accident or could it have been prevented?"

Seeking opinions is one thing, but if the rocket scientists at NASA are still in search of an answer, why bother asking the general public?

Not that KDKA is alone. Tuesday night CNN Headline News aired results of its poll, which asked viewers, "Will NASA ever be 100 percent sure of the cause of the Columbia disaster?"

Show some respect

Tuesday's coverage of the memorial service for the Columbia astronauts was appropriately solemn and dignified. CNN extinguished its news crawl and network anchors mostly kept their mouths shut. (Living and working in the city, deprived of MSNBC, I couldn't see what that network did.)

Then there's Fox News Channel, which kept both its news crawl and the stock ticker on screen throughout the service. While mourning for the astronauts, did anyone really need to know that the daughter of Orson Welles is suing two Hollywood studios for royalties? I don't think so.

Broken news

Sometimes, what seems like a story isn't, which is why airing live "breaking news" reports from far-flung locations can be dicey.

Channel 11 had live pictures last Thursday of what was supposedly an evacuation of the Treasury Building in Washington due to a "Hazmat situation." Later, Channel 11 reported that it wasn't the Treasury Building but a building next door, where office workers smelled diesel fuel.

During Friday's 11 p.m. news, WPXI had broken news, literally, when visual images went haywire for two minutes as the anchors continued to read stories. News director Pat Maday said a computer crashed and that resetting it took time.

"I don't recall that ever happening before, particularly during a newscast," he said. "It made for a few tense moments there."

Whither 'Boomtown'?

Concerned viewers came out of the woodwork this week, wondering what had become of NBC's "Boomtown," displaced this month by "Kingpin."

Relax. "Boomtown" is scheduled to be back March 2 and NBC executives seem relatively enthusiastic about the show's future.

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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