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Tuned In: Graphic video heralds start of sweeps month

Thursday, November 06, 2003

By Rob Owen

In a gift to TV news directors this November sweeps, a man pulled a gun outside a California courthouse and shot and wounded a lawyer at close range late last week while cameras were rolling.

The footage turned up on KDKA, WTAE and WPXI newscasts last Friday night with all the requisite disclaimers, but it's telling that "NBC Nightly News" didn't show the footage, instead relying on less sensational still photos (although by Monday the tape was airing on NBC's "Today" show).

In an apparent effort to woo the coveted snuff film demographic, KDKA followed that report with footage from Iraq of people about to have their heads, arms and tongues chopped off during the reign of Saddam Hussein. The tape stopped each time before anything was lopped off, but this story also required a warning about "graphic images."

There's no question TV is a visual medium and the courthouse shooting was a compelling visual image, but is it appropriate to air, especially on an early evening newscast when children are more likely to be in the room? The story could be told with less graphic still images, with the full video held until the late news when children are asleep, if it has to be shown at all.

More kudos/brickbats

A Wendy Bell report on inexpensive long-distance services on WTAE didn't just send viewers to the station's Web site as usual. Bell also volunteered to send a list of providers to anyone who wrote in and included a self-addressed, stamped envelope. That's a genuine service to viewers, especially those without Internet access.

WPXI's Karen Welles looked at railroad crossing safety Tuesday. Not a new story, but one worthy of revisiting based on a crossing in Washington County without gates. One missing element: What was the speed of the train shown approaching the crossing?

KDKA got caught playing the "exclusive/only on" game Monday night and lost. The station claimed the story of a kidney transplant mishap could be seen "only on KDKA," but the same story aired on WPXI.

New 'NightTalk'

The interview segments were the standouts in Ann Devlin's debut on PCNC's "NightTalk" on Monday, but the new host didn't put her best foot forward at the start of the show with "Ann's Rants & Raves."

Devlin ranted about the contract between the military and parents of soldiers and getting soldiers all the way home when family members die. And then she raved about an emergency light bulb. Perhaps if the rant and rave were more compelling, the segment would have more energy than it did Monday.

"NightTalk" perked up during the interviews. Devlin was prepared with questions, but also listened to her interview subjects (Dan Onorato and Jim Roddey) and followed up, even challenged them on occasion.

"Is fiscal reality forcing you to sound so much like a Republican?" she asked Onorato in one of her more pointed, cheeky questions.

Devlin handled callers with an iron fist, which is sometimes necessary if they ramble or fail to put together a coherent question. Even so, her demeanor came off as somewhat rude Monday night.

A final segment featuring a musical performance didn't work well because of the space on the set. Singing while seated at a desk is not ideal.

Technical troubles, a frequent problem during the John McIntire years of "NightTalk," did not leave with him. An echo in the first segment and a botched farewell at the end were common PCNC gaffes that make the station look more like public access than it should.

It wasn't just Devlin's show that had technical problems. PCNC kept showing "Tonight at 5" WPXI news promos well past 9 p.m.

I had hoped to see two editions of the new "NightTalk" by this point, but Tuesday's installment was pre-empted by election coverage. It's too early to say what impact the reconstituted program will have. First impressions say it has the potential to be informative, but not necessarily entertaining.

'8 Simple Rules'

The first episode of ABC's "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" filmed since the death of star John Ritter debuted Tuesday night and was directed by Pittsburgh native Jamie Widdoes.

In the show, Ritter's character, Paul Hennessy, also died, and the hourlong program dealt with his family's grief. It was a touching tribute to both the character and actor, mixing pathos with humor, although a laugh track was wisely left out.

A jeer within a cheer to WTAE for a news headline banner on screen during this emotional episode ("Dog Thrown Out Car Window, Can You Help?"). Rather than drawing viewers to the news, that kind of insensitivity makes me want to watch a newscast on any station but Channel 4.

'Reagans' debacle

CBS's decision to shunt its miniseries "The Reagans" over to Showtime because of protests by people who have not seen it was curious. Broadcast networks have no problem offending viewers on a daily basis with profanity and sexuality, yet politics -- CBS is beholden to lawmakers in Washington on regulatory issues -- and more importantly, a fear of controversy, apparently deep-sixed this project.

I saw only a six-minute trailer for the miniseries, which did bring to mind a "Saturday Night Live" skit, with scenes of Nancy Reagan (Judy Davis) raging through the White House halls and Ronald Reagan (James Brolin) seeming out of it, but a few clips don't represent a complete film.

Showtime will tell whether "The Reagans" is overly inflammatory, a good film in spite of the hubbub or something else entirely. Regardless, it doesn't seem as though Ronald Reagan needs protecting. It's the regular people who are thrust unwillingly into the spotlight -- hello, Jessica Lynch -- and see unauthorized TV movies made about them who have a more legitimate reason to gripe about their depiction in fictionalized TV accounts.

'Skin' skinned

Fox has canceled the porn king vs. district attorney Monday night drama "Skin" after just two broadcasts. Two episodes of "The Next Joe Millionaire" will air Monday from 8 to 10 p.m. throughout November.

Episodes of "The O.C." that premiere at 9 p.m. Wednesday will repeat at 9 p.m. Thursday this month.

Cable changes

Comcast will unveil a host of changes to its cable lineup effective Dec. 3. In some cases, channels that once aired on digital (Game Show Network, Outdoor Life, Turner Classic Movies) will move off the digital tier and into expanded basic, a win for consumers.

"Turner Classic Movies and some others we're moving from digital to analog seemed like they were more in demand by our regular customers," Comcast spokesman Brian Jeter said.

Additionally, Comcast will add DIY (home improvement) on Channel 103, Fine Living on Channel 104 and C-SPAN3 on Channel 105 to most Western Pennsylvania systems.

And some good news for city of Pittsburgh news junkies: MSNBC will finally join Comcast's city lineup next month as Channel 31.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 . Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

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