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TV Notes: War coverage turns some on, some off

Thursday, March 27, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The voice on the other end of the phone Monday sounded almost plaintive: "Do we have to have play-by-play coverage of the war?"

The answer is yes and no. Yes, the cable networks will provide it. That's what they do. But no, you don't have to watch.

War fatigue is as inevitable as it is understandable. How many times can one person stand to hear the same reports or the same speculation from military analysts, or read the same crawl loping across the bottom of the screen?

Not that there aren't moments of high drama. We've already seen ample evidence of that, too. Not every report can be a winner.

The sole purpose for CNN's Kyra Phillips to be aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier one night last week seemed to be to get a pilot in a ready-to-soar jet to give her and CNN viewers the thumbs-up sign.

Tuesday afternoon a Fox News Channel anchor referred to Saddam Hussein's elite troops as the "lunatic fringe," which seems to be more in the realm of opinion than where a news anchor should tread.

WPGH news director John Poister said viewers seem to fall into two camps: Those who can't get enough of war coverage and those who tune in at the top of a newscast just to hear the latest. He attributes Channel 53's highest newscast ratings ever opposite the Oscars to that phenomenon.

WTAE general manager Rick Henry pointed to the jump in ratings Saturday night as evidence of the public's interest in war coverage. The last 15 minutes of the movie "Good Will Hunting" had a 6 rating (percentage of TV households) and 10 share (percentage of sets in use), but the first 15 minutes of WTAE's local news jumped to a 10/17, a higher than usual increase in late news viewership.

Whether that interest will be sustained could depend on the success of the military campaign as it pushes on to Baghdad.

"If there is a large increase in the number of casualties or if we sweep through Baghdad and cover the entire country within three to four weeks," WPGH's Poister said, "either one of those extremes will affect viewing, but I don't know how."

Flag flap

Beginning last week and until Tuesday, KDKA displayed an on-screen graphic that used the American flag to denote the time on the East Coast, and the Iraqi flag to signify the time in Baghdad.

Some viewers didn't like it, but the inoffensive intent seemed clear to me.

"I think we had three calls [about it]," said KDKA news director Al Blinke, who decided to remove the graphic in part because of complaints. He now has the art department working on a replacement.

"Trust me, we're all Americans here," Blinke said. "I wasn't raising the Iraqi flag in support of Saddam Hussein."

I didn't think so.

Tired of the attitude

Sinclair Broadcasting's "The Point" commentaries by Mark Hyman air on WPGH's 10 p.m. news and, sadly, they're tarnishing a good newscast.

The return of commentaries to local airwaves didn't have to be a bad thing. But rather than offering thoughtful opinions, Hyman sounds like a politically charged, fulminating talk-radio host. Heaven knows we already have too many of those.

Monday night he lambasted Peter Jennings' choice of words about global support for the war and newspaper editorials that suggested that more time for diplomacy was needed. Then he went on to call the French "cheese-eating surrender monkeys."

Personally, I don't care which political point of view is espoused in a commentary, but childish name-calling is unseemly. Plus, putting forth an argument in an immature way tends to invalidate it in the minds of more thoughtful viewers.

WTAE special

Channel 4's Marilyn Brooks hosts "Obesity: Little Kids, Big Problems" (8 p.m. tomorrow), a "Healthy 4 Life" special about the way serious weight issues affect children.

Conspiracy theorists unite

Although an original episode was scheduled for last night, reruns of NBC's "The West Wing" have been pre-empted in recent weeks for reruns of "Law & Order."

Some viewers have wondered if NBC made these moves because of series star Martin Sheen's outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq.

"Absolutely not," said an NBC spokeswoman. "The reason we had those two pre-emptions is we try to remain as competitive as possible through the season, so we're trying a number of different programming scenarios."

What it comes down to is this: "Law & Order" reruns do better in the ratings than "West Wing" reruns.

Although its ratings are down, NBC still needs "The West Wing" because it draws upscale, wealthy viewers whom advertisers adore. It's already been renewed for two more seasons. NBC execs might not like Sheen being vocal about his views, but in Hollywood, ratings (and thereby, money) trumps politics almost every time.

Saluting 'The Shield'

FX's "The Shield," which has its second-season finale 10 p.m. Tuesday, is the best drama on television. Period.

The show suffered no sophomore slump. Instead, it became more nuanced in its storytelling and character development. And what a cast of actors, the best on the tube today.

Keep or cancel?

The annual Readers' Remote: Keep or Cancel? poll kicks off in Sunday's TV Week and will again be conducted online.

There was no space in TV Week for network addresses for people to write and express their opinions about shows that may or may not be renewed, so I'd suggest you clip and keep these:

ABC: 2300 Riverside Drive, Burbank, CA 91521; 1-310-557-7777.

CBS: 7800 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036; 1-323-575-2345.

Fox: Box 900, Beverly Hills, CA 90213; 1-310-369-1000.

NBC: 3000 W. Alameda Ave., Burbank, CA 91523; 1-818-840-3614.

Pax: 601 Clearwater Park Road, West Palm Beach, FL 33401; 1-561-659-4122.

UPN: 11800 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025; 1-310-575-7000.

The WB: 4000 Warner Blvd., Bldg. 34R, Burbank, CA 91522; 1-818-954-6000.

Addresses for broadcast and cable networks are always available online at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV LINKS.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com .

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