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Tuned In: Sweeps month fosters some fine reports

Thursday, May 08, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Controversy and scandal are a staple in the news business (print and broadcast), but two local stations offered sweeps month reports on property tax issues that took decidedly different approaches.

KDKA's Andy Sheehan reported on Allegheny County assessment hearing officers who moonlighted representing property owners in their appeals, winning larger-than-average reductions in all but two cases of 60 studied. The practice raised eyebrows, and Sheehan raised legitimate questions about its appropriateness.

Also this month, WPXI's Rick Earle investigated the lack of taxes paid on a home whose owner died in 1995 and for which no taxes have been paid since 1994.

Earle's piece wasn't bad, but it wasn't particularly ambitious. Yes, the city was losing tax revenue, but it was on a single property. The relevance of the story to most viewers was minimal.

Sheehan's report pointed out possible inequities in a system thousands have found themselves in after changes to the assessment process in recent years. Sheehan's report also resulted in action being taken: After his story aired, rules were changed to forbid hearing officers from representing clients in front of other hearing officers.

Worthwhile stories

WTAE's Jim Parsons reported on car thieves who use the Vehicle Identification Number from a car's dash. Thieves use the VIN to get a key made at car dealerships that don't ask to see identification.

The report made viewers and dealerships aware of a problem, although Parsons didn't name the dealerships that readily made the replacement keys. A little public embarrassment is more likely to result in a more conscientious dealership.

But the report jumped the shark when Parsons suggested that viewers download a VIN protector, basically a piece of paper with a Channel 4 logo on it.

Kudos to WPXI's Becky Thompson, who explored the issue of caps on malpractice claims in a balanced and informative report.

KDKA's Paul Martino did an interesting, educational story on developers who abuse the "blighted" designation for areas they plan to build on in order to help finance the projects.

No scandal? Never mind

WPXI sent Becky Thompson to investigate a sales pitch for a cheap mattress in a newspaper's classified ads. The mattresses were sold from an unmarked warehouse, so it did seem a little shady at the outset, but in the end, mattress manufacturers affirmed the odd method of selling as "an alternative channel of distribution."

Goofiest sweeps piece so far

KDKA's David Highfield was sent to preside over a crane dropping a car from a height of four stories to simulate the damage done by a vehicle hitting a wall at 35 mph. Teens watching expressed shock at the damage, but, come on, what did they expect?

And how does dropping a car -- a stunt if there ever was one -- qualify as newsworthy? It doesn't, but it allowed the station to run a vague tease during prime-time to entice viewers to stick around for the late news.

Adelphia drops WTOV

Per its renegotiated retransmission agreement with WPXI, Adelphia Cable will drop Steubenville NBC affiliate WTOV on May 22 from its South Hills systems (including Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon and West Mifflin). The move will no doubt disappoint some Adelphia customers who depended on WTOV for "Weekend Today," which WPXI does not carry.

Both WTOV and WPXI are owned by Cox, and WPXI/WTOV program director Mark Barash said the request for Adelphia to drop WTOV is an effort to protect Channel 11's NBC exclusivity in the market.

Barash said the change will affect about 60,000 homes that "had access to it as an addition they weren't necessarily supposed to have to, because we do have exclusive rights to it."

So, how about adding "Weekend Today" to WPXI? Fat chance.

"We have a local newscast which is really popular, more popular than the average 'Weekend Today'.... I'd say the viewers have spoken. They really do like our local newscast."

When WTOV is dropped, Shop NBC will move to Channel 11. Also, Lifetime will move from Channel 46 to Channel 24 and HGTV will move from Channel 24 to Channel 46.

Thigpen's farewell

Saturday's episode of CBS's "The District" (9 p.m.) deals with the death of the show's No. 2 character, Ella Farmer, necessitated by the death of actress Lynne Thigpen ("Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"). Thigpen passed away unexpectedly earlier this year. (A specific cause of death has not been announced, but it's believed to have been natural.)

'Guardian' season finale

Pittsburgh native David Hollander, executive producer of CBS's "The Guardian" (9 p.m. Tuesday), likes to paint himself into a corner. That's particularly evident in next week's season finale, "All the Rage," which he directed and co-wrote.

Lulu (Wendy Moniz), who's become particularly depressive and bedraggled of late, considers a job that would take her to the San Francisco area, which she says, "is more interesting than Pittsburgh." For shame!

Everyone on the show seems to be in need of an anger management course and a good therapist. Nick (Simon Baker) even gets to see one, but the shrink is uncaring and Nick's uncooperative.

Lives and relationships are left to hang in the balance in this cliffhanger, which pales compared to last year's more shocking, exciting season finale. Still, there are enough head-scratchers to leave viewers wondering over the summer.

Channel surfing

The BBC was in town late last month to film an abstinence from sex program presented at Valley High School in New Kensington. Coverage of the "Silver Ring Thing" event will be included in a documentary called "Abstinence in Practice," scheduled to air in England this fall. ... PCNC will air coverage of the 49th annual NAACP Human Rights Dinner, held earlier this month, at 7 p.m. Sunday and at 8 p.m. Monday. Gina Redmond hosts the coverage, which features "Judge Mathis" star Judge Greg Mathis as the guest speaker.

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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