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Tuned In: Black history shows take different tacks

Thursday, February 19, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Let's face it: When a TV station sets out to do a Black History Month special, sometimes it's done more because it's something a station executive feels should be done rather than something there's a burning passion for.

Whether a program is a sop to the audience or has a legitimate reason to exist is usually obvious to viewers.

Tonight's "The House: A Black Horizons Special" on WQED (8 p.m.) bursts with energy, enthusiasm and a sense of pride for Westinghouse High School, aka "The House."

You might wonder: Why would viewers care about a school they didn't attend? A legitimate question, but "The House" doesn't just dwell on the school, it explores changes in the neighborhood that feeds the school, which was highly integrated in the 1950s but sends only one white student to Westinghouse today. This documentary is as much a history lesson as it is a valentine to a neighborhood school.

The one-hour special, narrated by Chris Moore and produced by Moore and Minette Seate, makes good use of music, interviews and archival footage, particularly a documentary about a former football coach. "The House" has high production values and clearly was not just slapped together.

There are a wide variety of interview subjects -- both black and white -- who graduated from the school. Seeing the pride they have in their alma mater is both heartwarming and amusing. Urban League president Esther Bush shows off a cheer from her days as a Westinghouse High cheerleader. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal keyboardist Patricia Prattis Jennings sings the school's fight song.

A second locally produced Black History Month special, WPXI's "Young Gifted and Black: Pittsburgh's African-American Achievers," airs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Written and produced by Robin Beckham, it's tighter than "The House," which could be just a little shorter, but "Young, Gifted and Black" is not as ambitious or as full of heart.

The half-hour program, hosted by Channel 11 anchor David Johnson, has three newscast-style reports on current or former Pittsburghers who've achieved locally and nationally.

Actor Lamman Rucker ("As the World Turns") and basketball star "Swin" Cash are profiled along with Dr. Dwight Heron, a radiation oncologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Heron's story, reported by Vince Simms, is the most interesting. Heron even entertains the ambition to someday be America's surgeon general.

Channel 11 is the only commercial station in Pittsburgh to regularly offer locally produced Black History Month specials. Its 2000 edition was devoted to Westinghouse High.

New to KDKA

KDKA-TV has hired a new general assignment reporter. John Cater began on the air Tuesday and comes to Pittsburgh from WDSI, the Fox affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he was a weekend anchor/reporter. He's a native of Chicago.

'Assignment' canceled

Daily Variety reports digital cable's National Geographic Channel has canceled "On Assignment," its nightly series that began in 2001 as "National Geographic Today." Deb Acklin, now senior vice president and chief content officer at WQED, was a senior producer with the show in its early days.

"On Assignment" was canceled due to low ratings and the high cost of production, according to a network spokesman.

'Sex' on the big screen?

Daily Variety reports that "Sex and the City" executive producer Michael Patrick King is writing a script for a feature film that reunites Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Samantha (Kim Cattrall) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis).

"Sex and the City" has its 45-minute series finale on HBO at 9 p.m. Sunday.

'Queer Eye' spoof

First up to spoof Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy": Comedy Central's "flab four," who offer a "Straight Plan for the Gay Man."

Three one-hour episodes will air beginning Monday at 10 p.m.

This blatant ripoff/parody features four beer-swilling guy's guys giving tips to the "clearly fabulous" Jonathan, a New York fashion sales manager, who longs to be "as unfabulous as possible" to pass as a straight man for one day.

The guys check out his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment.

"Straight guys don't usually collect teacups," says one of the straight men. Another describes Jonathan's style as "grandma chic."

Instead of shopping at Barney's, the straight guys go Dumpster diving to redecorate Jonathan's apartment. They also install a beer tap at his sink.

Some viewers are no doubt bound to take offense because, well, people are overly sensitive today, even when it comes to comedy, and get upset about everything. True, in "Queer Eye," the boys don't try to make the straight guy turn gay, and here the straights are trying to make the gay guy walk a straighter path, but it's only for a day. No permanent harm appears to be done and the show parades stereotypes at both ends of the sexual identity spectrum.

"Make sure not to smile," advises "appearance guy" Billy. "A smile means you're happy; happy means you're gay."

Hopefully with preposterous advice like that, most people will understand this show is nothing but goofy fun.

More Jackson fallout

As the Janet Jackson breast-baring scandal stretches into its third week and talk of indecency and television continues to swirl, there's been another casualty. USA Network changed the title of its upcoming biopic about Heidi Fleiss from the more provocative "Going Down: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss" to the tamer "Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss."

The film airs at 9 p.m. March 29.

Aguilera on 'SNL'

Wexford's own Christina Aguilera hosts NBC's "Saturday Night Live" (11:30 p.m. Saturday) this weekend. Maroon 5 will be the musical guest.


This week's TV Q&A, available only online at the Web site listed in italics below, addresses questions about sweeps, "Boomtown," "The Wire" and former WTAE morning anchor Sam Merrill.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Post questions about TV to under TV Q&A.

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