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Tuned In: Anchors need to find banter balance

Thursday, June 29, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Ha, ha, ha, that's quite a story, Jane. " "It sure is, John (abruptly switching from happy face to serious grimace). Coming up next, a massacre in Rwanda."

Anchor banter. It can be funny and humanizing; it can be painful and groan-inducing.

It's also the element of TV news I get the most complaints about.

After last week's column in which I asked for comments on local TV news, a woman called and complained, "Scott Baker talks too much. He gives one line of news and then has to have something to say afterwards."

Baker and other anchors do occasionally ad-lib. After a report on the closing of Ross supermarket Amarraca, Baker added, "I bought a Dreamsicle Gelato there on Saturday."

It was, no doubt, an effort to relate to his audience, but it's the kind of throwaway line that drives some viewers crazy.

Frequently, I feel the same. Some ad-libs don't work; they can make viewers cringe. Heaven knows that was my usual reaction when John Huck bantered with Sheila Hyland on WPGH. It's much easier to watch Huck's replacement, Jay Harris, on that newscast.

But banter shouldn't be banned altogether. If all personality is drained, the anchor becomes nothing more than a news reader.

I like to watch the friendly interaction between Jennifer Antkowiak and Ken Rice on KDKA. I get a kick out of WTAE consumer reporter Wendy Bell and her playfulness with Scott Baker and Michelle Wright. What's required is a delicate balance between not enough personality and too much.

It also helps if anchors read the news script in advance so they have a feel for where banter is appropriate.

Despite the complaints I hear, there's less banter on today's high-speed newscasts. The 6 and 11 p.m. reports on all three stations are virtually banter-free. The 5 p.m. news on KDKA and WTAE is softer and offers notably more banter. Only WPXI seems to have sworn off banter at 5 p.m. altogether.

"David Johnson and Peggy Finnegan are professional and, once again, get to the point quickly with none of KDKA's time-killing banter," read one post to the TV Forum on the PG Web site last week.

That's both good and bad. It offers viewers a banter-free alternative, but it also diminishes the personalities of the anchors. If I hadn't seen Johnson on PCNC's "Talkback" show (and he and Finnegan handling some true breaking-news situations), I probably wouldn't have as good a sense for them as people. That feeling of knowing the anchor, however false, is what connects viewers to anchors and develops viewer loyalty.

Try to imagine "Today" or "Good Morning America" without banter. Those shows are driven to ratings highs or lows based on the hosts' personalities, often revealed through unscripted comments. At its best, banter makes the anchors seem like real people. It gives intimacy to the medium.

My original impression stands: Moderation is key.

LOCAL CONTROVERSY GOES NATIONAL: The controversial redevelopment of the Fifth and Forbes district in Downtown Pittsburgh merits three minutes in The History Channel's "America's Most Endangered 2000" tonight at 10.

Narrator Edward Herrmann says "Downtown Pittsburgh is threatened by a demolition derby" before the program segues to scenes of preservationists interviewed in front of Downtown buildings.

The program was produced in conjunction with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so this is a clearly biased portrait. Mayor Murphy isn't interviewed anywhere, and although alternatives to Murphy's plan are briefly discussed, there are only a few specifics.

"America's Most Endangered" makes its most persuasive argument for the need to redevelop, rather than level, buildings along Fifth and Forbes by showing the architectural details that could easily be given a better showcase through a less invasive, more thoughtful plan.

ARTS COVERAGE: As a follow-up to December's column about the lack of local TV coverage of the arts scene, it's worth noting that a report by the National Arts Journalism Program (www.najp.org) shows national broadcasters don't do any better.

NAJP found that less than 3 percent of weekday national news coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC is devoted to reports on music, movies, television, books and the visual and performing arts. There also was a drop from about 500 minutes of arts coverage per year in 1990 to 300 minutes per year in 1999. Throughout the 1990s, popular music, movies and TV received far more coverage than "high arts" such as theater, classical music and dance.

CULT OF "SURVIVOR": Yes, I'm a willing member. Even as I recognize how padded and completely unreal CBS's "Survivor" is, I love this show. Anything that can make me scream at the TV, as last week's episode did, has to be doing something right.

I could not believe Gervase, the supposed basketball coach, walked during a competition when he should have been running. And then to gloat about his chances of staying on the island during the Tribal Council! No question about it, Gervase must go.

For those who hate the series or want a glimpse into the future of which castaway may be voted off next, visit www.survivorsucks.com.

FYI: It now looks like the season finale of "Survivor" will air as a two-hour event, 8 to 10 p.m. Aug. 23.

NO "WENN": After the September 1998 cancellation of "Remember WENN," WQED director of on-air fund raising, T.J. Lubinsky, thought the Pittsburgh-set series might be a good show to acquire for a station pledge drive. If the ratings were high enough, he thought, maybe WQED could secure funding to film a conclusion, similar to what PBS did after NBC canceled "I'll Fly Away."

But that's not going to happen.

"They wouldn't listen," Lubinsky said of his discussions with AMC. "They didn't care."

He said he suggested cross-promotion following "WENN" broadcasts that would tout AMC, but the network wasn't interested.

"It's all about money with them," he said. "They just wanted to let [the series] kind of go away."

Now Lubinsky has lined up a "Fawlty Towers" marathon during WQED's August pledge drive.

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

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