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Tuned In: News features share from the same plate

Thursday, February 12, 2004

By Rob Owen Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I was watching the evening news last week and saw a report on local restaurants that were cited for health code violations. Not a surprise, since WPXI's Becky Thompson has offered these reports during sweeps for years; however, I was surprised to see her wearing a tie and sporting a five o'clock shadow.

But it wasn't Thompson, and I wasn't watching Channel 11. KDKA-TV's Paul Martino was doing essentially the same story.

In what appears to be just one more attempt by KDKA to clone the format of WPXI's newscast -- fast pace, relentless breaking news -- the station has glommed onto Channel 11's popular sweeps feature.

It's not wrong for any station to copy a popular feature from a rival, but it does show a certain lack of imagination. Martino's reports, scheduled to run every Thursday this month during KDKA's evening newscasts, even feature some of the same restaurants that were cited on previous occasions and covered by Channel 11.

Thompson's expertise in food preparation and safety proved particularly valuable to WPXI during November sweeps, which coincided with the hepatitis outbreak at a Beaver County chain restaurant.

Thompson's restaurant reports will return later this month, according to WPXI news director Pat Maday.

Encouraging intolerance?

One might wonder if KDKA has a new strategy: Pick on a different minority group during sweeps periods.

In November, the station aired reports about men having sex in a local park. It's an old story that has been done many times before, here and elsewhere. KDKA's report didn't advance the story at all, and promos for it had a leering tone that seemed engineered to tap into some viewers' homophobic feelings.

For February sweeps, now in its second week, KDKA targeted illegal immigrants. To be fair, Andy Sheehan's report was not sensational nor inflammatory, but the promotions for it were.

"Aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins and friends: They're moving in and bringing everyone they know," the KDKA announcer said as vaguely ethnic music played in the background. "They're moving in and taking your jobs and not paying a dime in taxes. Where are these illegals living? Right here."

The promo ended with a shot of KDKA's overwhelmingly white and male investigative reporters and primary anchors. It's almost as if Channel 2 is cueing its overwhelmingly white and older audience that they can feel safer watching KDKA because it doesn't hire anyone who doesn't look like them.

That's probably not the statement KDKA intended to make, but when you begin a promo with an ugly, fear-mongering message, it's a logical interpretation.

Sweeps investigations

Kudos to KDKA's Sheehan for an update on a report about conflicts of interest in the county reassessment office and to WTAE's Jim Parsons for a story about a local contractor accused of stealing construction material from the Pentagon as it was being rebuilt after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Both were decent sweeps stories worthy of the "investigation" label.

24-hour news

Viewers who love and need vindication for their disgust with the current state of TV news can find it in the new documentary "Feeding the Beast: The 24-Hour News Revolution." The 90-minute program airs Monday on Trio, which is available on Comcast's Digital Premier tier at Channel 137.

Narrated by Linda Ellerbee, "Feeding the Beast" explores the rise in 24-hour cable news from the advent of CNN to today. There are not a lot of new observations, but a few are worth noting:

As annoying as he is on CNN, Aaron Brown makes some astute observations about the industry he works in, particularly the rise of sensational cases such as the murder of Laci Peterson.

"A local murder case becomes this huge national deal and no one can answer the question, 'Why?' except that the beast needs to be fed for 24 hours."

Conservative strategist Mary Matalin points out this propelling guideline of cable news that unfortunately applies too often to local news as well: "Get there first. Doesn't matter if you get that right, and there's no penalty for being wrong."

The issue of bias is handled in a segment with CNN founder Ted Turner deftly explaining why journalists, who see the worst of the human condition in covering bad news, may be more liberal than, say, wealthy business executives who aren't exposed to such conditions.

The inclusion of R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe is a bit of a mystery until "Feeding the Beast" explains that R.E.M.'s newest music video parodies TV news. He also gets the best line: "Please let me die on a slow news day."

Reality TV online

Recaps of the week's "reality" shows are now available at www.post-gazette.com/tv under "Reality TV." This new weekly feature will be posted every Friday and features commentary and updates on the most popular "reality" series, including "Survivor," "American Idol" and "The Real World."

In addition, the second edition of our online-only TV Q&A column appears on the Web today with questions and answers about inaccurate TV listings, complaints about reruns and the status of several shows that are no longer on the network schedules.

Channel surfing

NBC's "Crossing Jordan" returns for its third season March 7. It will air at 10 p.m. Sundays. ... NBC has said it will return "Miss Match" to the schedule, but so far no date or time slot. ... Shaler High School graduate Tracy Butler, a meteorologist at ABC's Chicago affiliate, plays a reporter covering a fire today on "General Hospital" (3 p.m., WTAE).


Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.

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