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TV Notes: Stations take turns in staff turnovers

Thursday, April 10, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Everything in television is cyclical. It's the reason I don't worry too much about trends in programming, such as "reality" TV. Once every network jumps on the bandwagon, it's likely to crash and burn. Only the "best" -- and I use the word loosely -- survive.

So it is with local news. Ratings trends may be longer-lasting -- such as KDKA's decades-long stint atop the ratings until the relatively recent horse race for first place -- but the cycle of staff stability at each station in town will always wax and wane.

Four years ago, WTAE was a revolving door, with reporters and anchors coming and going in what seemed like an endless stream. WPGH has run through executives like they're Kleenex.

In that time, KDKA and WPXI had the most stability in their A team of anchors, but lately the B+ team at WPXI has been in flux.

In the past year, three talented, respected on-air people have chosen to leave: reporter Steve Chenevey, reporter/fill-in anchor Natasha Brown and now weekend anchor/reporter Keith Jones, who will leave after May sweeps to join WOWK in Charleston-Huntington, W.Va., as a 5, 6 and 11 p.m. weeknight anchor. (Reporter Reg Chapman left after WPXI did not renew his contract.)

Turnover at local stations can be attributed to a variety of factors, ranging from poor management or a change in management regimes to a lack of room for advancement or simply better job offers.

For Jones, it's a matter of want-ing to spend more time with his family, including 6-year-old daughter Madeline, who has a rare form of an enlarged heart.

"My kids are getting older, and the reality is, I don't know how much time I'm going to have with one of them," Jones said yesterday. "WPXI has been incredibly generous and dependable when it's come to my daughter and her issues, and I'm incredibly grateful for that. But they told me for a long time, 'We've got a place for you, you're moving up in this company,' but I'm not going to wait any longer. I need to be with my kids and family."

Jones said if WPXI had moved him to a weekday spot, perhaps similar to the position Kris Long once occupied, he would have stayed.

"David [Johnson] is well aware I'm not trying to push him out. He's clearly the best male anchor in town if not in the country, but I think there's more than enough room for me to move to Monday through Friday, do a half-hour [anchoring] and report night side," Jones said. "That would have been enough, but there are no hard feelings. They were incredibly generous when offering me a counter-proposal, but the other offer was too good to pass up."

News director Pat Maday said in addition to people making personal choices, change is the nature of the TV business, particularly in a market of this size.

As market No. 21, reporters/anchors and behind-the-scenes people working at stations in Pittsburgh are attractive to stations in the Top 10, Maday said. "Then there's another factor ... the reality is the quality of television in this market is exceptional, especially compared to a lot of bigger markets."

Jones attributed the recent exits to numerous factors, including the downturn in the economy that's impacting TV stations.

"Everybody is enduring cutbacks and being asked to do more with less," he said. "You can chalk it up to the adage, 'It's a sign of the times.' The news industry continues to evolve and change, and some people would say it's not for the better."

When people leave and aren't replaced quickly, there's a greater burden of the workload on those left behind, which can in turn hasten those people's exits.

"Channel 11 is a very difficult place to work right now because of what is asked of you as a field crew," Jones said. "The amount of work we do oftentimes feels overwhelming, but it also forces you to get the job done and get it done as well as you can."

Jones said Cox-owned stations like WPXI have a reputation in the industry for expecting a lot from employees.

"People know if reporters are coming from Cox stations and, in particular, a station in Pittsburgh, undoubtedly the most competitive market in the country, they know they're getting somebody good. Say what you want about it being a difficult place to work and maybe not turning pieces you're proud of, it makes you work hard. Once you work there, you can pretty much go anywhere you want."

Jones said all the on-air talent who departed had good relationships with Maday, and Jones expects the situation will get better as more people are hired to replace the departed. "Once we get more bodies in there, that can relieve a lot of the workload on some of the other reporters, and things will start to improve again."

Earlier this week, Channel 11 promoted Emilie Story from part-time to full-time reporter and announced the hiring of a new general assignment reporter, Kimberly Easton.

Couric special repeated

Some cable viewers watching the Katie Couric interview Sunday night with Trisha Meili, the Upper St. Clair native who became known as the Central Park Jogger, missed the final 15 minutes of the broadcast due to an equipment failure at Channel 11.

The station has gotten permission from NBC to air the entire hour again at 8 tonight on PCNC.

Another fine mess

PBS's "Frontline" (10:30 tonight on WQED) looks at "Kim's Nuclear Gamble," chronicling recent developments in North Korean aggression and its roots.

Conservatives accuse the Clinton administration of a policy of appeasement; liberals accuse the Bush administration of having no policy, just a hostile attitude. Ain't politics grand?

Miller rants

Speaking of politics, Castle Shannon native Dennis Miller offers his own take on world affairs in "Dennis Miller: The Raw Feed" (10 p.m. Saturday on HBO).

In a culture that's become accustomed to actors and celebrities expressing a liberal point of view, Miller's conservatism comes as a surprise. He applauds the war in Iraq and slams the ACLU.

"If only we could get Sean Penn on board. If only Saddam Hussein was a paparazzi," Miller says. "You know, Sean is one of those interesting Hollywood dichotomies that when I eventually cross his path now, he'll want to beat my [rear end] because I insinuated he wasn't peaceful."

Regardless of one's political leanings, busting on the hypocrisy of Hollywood celebrities is always good for a laugh.

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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