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Tuned In: Never confuse malice with dumb luck

Thursday, November 27, 2003

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Before the pumpkin pie topped with a dollop of homemade whipped cream, it's time for our annual TV turkeys. Gobble up!

Usually the turkey awards are handed out to TV stations, but this year the most ridiculous hubbub in local TV came from viewers with a willingness to invent a conspiracy theory where a mere coincidence existed. Nothing else generated more phone calls or e-mail to the TV desk.

On May 11, the night of the "Survivor: Amazon" finale, KDKA aired promos saying the station would follow local finalist Jenna Morasca as she made the media rounds in New York, including an appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman."

Dozens of viewers leaped, jumped and rushed to the conclusion that KDKA had spoiled the surprise: The station knew Morasca would be declared the winner. And then when she was, that just reinforced their theories.

One problem with this outrage: It was completely misdirected. No one at KDKA -- and only a few people at CBS -- knew who the winner would be. KDKA didn't spoil the surprise; the station assumed that if Morasca won or even were the runner-up, she'd appear on "Late Show." In the past, "Survivor" stars -- not just the winner -- have appeared on "Late Show" to read the Top Ten list.

When Letterman changed tactics and only Morasca appeared, that confirmed in the minds of some viewers that KDKA had spoiled the surprise. But it was really just an assumption that fanned the flames of conspiracy theorists. If there's one thing I've learned doing this job, it's that nine times out of 10 there is no conspiracy, just dumb mistakes and coincidences.

And now, on with the other turkeys ...

TV news idiocy

I've tried. I really have. I know it's a competitive news environment. I know it's a horse race, but I just can't take local TV news seriously anymore, not when KDKA led a September newscast with "breaking news" about a small fire at the Convention Center that damaged only a tarp, and, oh, by the way, it's no longer burning.

That's so clearly not breaking, and it barely qualifies as news.

So much for distinctiveness

A turkey to PCNC management for putting the kibosh on the 10 p.m. news anchors' playing statues at the end of the newscast. Sometimes a little irreverence is OK.

David Johnson, John Fedko and Steve Teeling would freeze for six seconds at the end of the newscast -- a parody of the way '70s TV shows often ended -- and it brought to mind the late, great "NBC News Overnight" or ABC's "World News Now," which had a polka as its theme song. Frankly, more playfulness would give PCNC some identity -- any identity -- beyond newscast reruns and a few original shows.

On this one I get a turkey, too, for opening my big mouth and bringing the statues to management's attention. I should have known the station would be humorless about it.

Worst on-hold music

When my digital cable box went kaput in August, denying me access to HBO, I waited 30 minutes to talk to a human being at Comcast. The all-too-fitting song playing on Muzak? "Anticipation" by Carly Simon.

Worst Web poll

In April, KDKA asked visitors to its Web site this inane, tasteless question: "Do you think the bodies found in California this week are the remains of missing woman Laci Peterson and her baby?"

Shouldn't polls be about opinions on issues, not the latest tabloid fodder?

Trying to have it both ways

In coverage of a memorial service for NBC's late anchor/reporter David Bloom, Channel 11 identified Bloom as the host of "Weekend Today."

Of course, Pittsburghers never got the chance to know Bloom in his role on that program because Channel 11 refuses to broadcast "Weekend Today," instead relying on endless hours of local news because local news rakes in more commercial dollars than NBC's national morning show would.

Off by this much

In January, when a woman drove off McArdle Roadway and down Mount Washington, WPXI reported that her car dropped 1,000 feet and landed on top of the Station Square T station. In fact, it fell 150 feet and got wedged between the hillside and a tunnel. Coverage you can count on -- to be exaggerated.

Kissing up

For Pittsburgh Magazine's annual "Pittsburgher of the Year," WQED Multimedia selected the region's foundations, kissing up to its top sources of funding.

And now a few prime-time turkeys ...

Just cut out the heart

Larry Wilmore, who won Emmy and Peabody awards for writing "The Bernie Mac Show," was fired by Fox in March over creative differences.

That's pretty rare.

Usually an acclaimed show runner is given free rein (see: David E. Kelley and the decline of "Ally McBeal"), but Fox was upset that the show's ratings didn't grow (never mind that the network screwed up by pitting it against "My Wife and Kids" last year). Wilmore told Entertainment Weekly that one network note said the show should have "no more poignancy."

Wilmore's a smart guy who deserved better.

Paranoia reigns supreme

A big ol' turkey to the broadcast networks for their constantly changing schedules and for making a nation of viewers ridiculously paranoid.

Last week, CBS pre-empted "The Guardian" and "Judging Amy." Pre-emptions happen all the time in TV; it's just part of the business. Both shows were always scheduled to be bumped last week, initially for Part 2 of "The Reagans." When that fell by the wayside, CBS slotted "Without a Trace" and "CSI: Miami" because they often get better ratings, even in reruns.

But networks have become so trigger-happy that viewers freak when a show disappears for even one week. I got multiple calls -- one from my own father -- worried that both shows had been canceled.

Relax. Use this rule of thumb: Unless you read a cancellation announcement here, a pre-emption is just a pre-emption.


TV Editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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