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Tuned In: WPGH's layoffs, 'News Central' risky

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

A glimpse at the future of TV news or a suicidal sea change?

Monday's shakeup at Sinclair-owned WPGH could go down in TV history as one or the other.

With 11 employees laid off -- including meteorologist Matt Morano, weekend sports anchor Matt Fine and reporter Bill Clack -- Sinclair will attempt to create a new broadcast model using News Central, a centralized news operation in Hunt Valley, Md.

From News Central, Sinclair will provide weather, national and international news blocks for WPGH's newscasts that will be integrated with local news. On weekends, News Central may also provide WPGH with sports reports.

Centralizing operations can save media organizations money, often at the expense of a distinctive identity. Just look at what's happened in radio: A few companies own most radio stations in town, operating them all from under one roof.

In television, Pittsburgh stations air stories from reporters in Washington at corporate-owned bureaus. The reporters file the same stories daily for multiple outlets.

But Sinclair's gambit is on a much larger scale.

"It's one vision of the future," said John Poister, the former WPGH news director who left the station earlier this month. He said he was offered a job at Sinclair's News Central, but he didn't want to leave Pittsburgh. Or he could have stayed at WPGH, but someone else would have had to go (Poister's position was eliminated Monday). "I firmly believe a lot of station groups, especially with smaller stations in smaller markets, will be looking closely at this model to see if there's anything they can use from it."

Mark Hyman, Sinclair's vice president for corporate relations who appears on the air in "The Point" commentaries, said the News Central model is all about creating efficiencies at Sinclair's 63 stations.

"If there's an earthquake in Turkey, why have 63 producers and 63 anchors tell that story 63 times if it has no local impact?" Hyman said in a phone interview from Sinclair headquarters in suburban Baltimore. "Our view is, let's tell the same story to everybody at the same time."

News Central uses CNN footage and will open its own Washington bureau in the near future.

In addition to adding News Central elements to the existing 10 p.m. news, WPGH will add an 11 p.m. news on June 9 to compete with KDKA, WTAE and WPXI.

Ray Carter, general manager at WPXI, said he doesn't think a fourth 11 p.m. news will affect existing newscasts, which already are locked in a close ratings battle. It may not, but Sinclair has nothing to lose by adding news at 11 p.m. Some advertisers want to appear only in newscasts, so better to have a newscast at 11 than a syndicated show. The cost will be almost negligible, because the staff is already there for the 10 p.m. news.

"I just think the Sinclair people want to get a piece of that big-news advertiser dollar without paying the price to do it," said John Howell, retired general manager of WPXI. "They're doing it on the cheap, and they'll get some advertisers. That's an interesting thing that always frustrated me: Advertisers will buy it, even if its not particularly good."

Howell said TV stations are looking to cut costs in many ways, and Sinclair has latched onto centralization. He said other stations across the country have installed Parkervision, an automated studio control system that eliminates the need for camera operators and other behind-the-scenes employees.

After a meeting Monday at WPGH, employees stood around the newsroom in a display one staffer compared to a shooting gallery. Everyone waited to see who would be called by news manager Sharon Ritchey and told they would be out of work after May 27.

To many, the timing of the cuts was particularly galling because Channel 53 had its best news ratings ever during February sweeps.

With the advent of News Central, changes were expected, but the extent of the cuts came as a surprise to some. Others inside local media circles thought Sinclair might kill the 6-year-old news operation entirely, although that seemed unlikely because WPGH's affiliation agreement with Fox requires the station to carry local news.

Sinclair's biggest, potentially dumbest gamble is the decision to dump local weather, especially because it's become such an important marketing tool for local stations. Howell said 80 percent of late news viewers tune in for weather.

By ceding any local weather presence, Sinclair gives WNPA's low-rated, KDKA-produced 10 p.m. news a competitive advantage ("Tune to the 10 p.m. news with local weather"). It also deprives WPGH of a friendly face to send into the community as the station's ambassador.

"Are you going to want to watch somebody in your town or somebody who's delivering something via satellite that's on tape? Who's going to get on the air faster [in severe weather]?" Morano said. "You make the call; I'm going to stay on the sidelines."

Sinclair uses AccuWeather to provide forecasts, just like KDKA, but Sinclair's forecaster won't have the ability to look out the window to see if it's snowing here. Hyman dismissed that concern.

"We have an entire newsroom of people who can do that," he said.

Matt Morano is clearly one of the best meteorologists in town and a consummately decent guy. Even after he got the pink slip he expected, he didn't sound angry. He wasn't vindictive, merely philosophical. He had experience with centralized weather when he worked in radio, and he said he felt really comfortable only with forecasts for nearby areas.

But there's one significant difference between Morano and a corporation: He cares.

More contests

In addition to the regular contests during news on WPXI and WTAE, May's sweeps period will include a contest tied to WPGH's 10 p.m. news.

Viewers who watch Channel 53's newscast on Wednesdays will be given an opportunity to call a phone number, and an announcer will say which numbered caller will be the winner of $1,000.

In its ratings book, Nielsen flags contests, including those during newscasts, because they may influence ratings. Lottery drawings on KDKA, which may also influence ratings, are not flagged because they're telecast year-round rather than only during sweeps months.

May sweeps begins tomorrow.

Changing channels

Singer Dan Burda, 21, of Ross, half of the "Dubba Duo" that does promotional appearances for WCWB, will compete tonight on CBS's "Star Search" (8 p.m., KDKA-TV).

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.

Correction/Clarification: (Published May 1, 2003) AccuWeather provides graphics and data to Sinclair's News Central weather center, but not forecasts. Among Pittsburgh television stations, AccuWeather provides forecasts only to KDKA-TV. A story on April 23 may not have made that point clear.

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