Tuned In: WTAE rates best on investigations front

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After just a week of November sweeps, WTAE has once again shown it offers the best investigative pieces of any local station.

There's just a thoroughness to Channel 4's well-sourced, substantive reports that the other TV news outlets too often lack. WTAE's reports also relate to and have an impact on the average viewer in ways that are missing from some other investigations.

Jim Parsons reported last week on lead found in tap water that suppliers were not required to report to homeowners. He also found 39 percent of local water quality reports failed to acknowledge that a heightened lead level had been found in testing.

The report explained the cause of the lead likely comes from waterlines that branch from the main line to the home and told viewers that a new federal law will require homeowners to be notified if their tap water tests positive for lead. Parsons also directed viewers to Channel 4's Web site for a list of testing facilities where they can have their water checked.

It was a thorough report that explained the problem, noted possible solutions and ways to check to be sure the water you're drinking doesn't contain undue amounts of lead.

Similarly, WTAE's Paul Van Osdol offered a useful report on a New Jersey company that has a track record of ratcheting up overhead expenses for local charities, including one group that spends 85 percent of what it takes in to pay for fund raising (the Better Business Bureau says a charity should spend no more than 35 percent on fund raising).

WPXI's Rick Earle reported on ballots cast in the names of dead people in local elections, which is obviously undesirable, but Channel 11's reports have an unfortunate tendency to make a mountain out of a molehill. Only 16 ballots were cast in the name of the dead "in recent elections." That's not exactly an epidemic and seems unlikely to change the outcome of any particular contest.

Similarly, Earle's report on photos taken inside a state prison that were supposedly "stirring controversy" made me wonder if the controversy was concocted by Channel 11. Were the photos posted to a Web site and made public in advance of Channel 11's report? WPXI didn't say.

The photos showed guards with a "racist drawing" -- supposedly a confederate flag with Swastikas, but it wasn't very recognizable. A prison spokeswoman said the "flag," which looked like something an elementary student brought home from school, was taken from prisoners and displayed to alert guards to potential problems.

What the other photos were supposed to show wasn't clear and the report didn't elaborate beyond saying one guard was "smiling at his desk" and another was shown "playing a cruel joke."

Obviously prison guards should not be making light of racist prisoner artwork, but news outlets shouldn't fan the flames of racial discord, either. Often it comes down to a matter of tone. Perhaps if station promos and the tone of the report didn't come with a forced sense of urgency, the story wouldn't have left me thinking, "And?"

KDKA's Andy Sheehan reported on a police campaign against a judge the cops deemed soft on crime. The attitude of the piece, perhaps because it used the police lobbying as a jumping off point, at first seemed to sympathize with the accusers.

But to the report's credit, it went over the facts and figures of the judge's record and offered the necessary context lacking in the roadside signs that lobbied against the judge, who was retained in Tuesday's election.

Silliest promo

"Why is traffic reporter Jim Lokay lying down in the middle of I-79?" Uh, to stop, drop and roll to the other side?

Things that make you go hmmmm

KDKA's Brenda Waters offered a sweeps feature titled "Miracle Doctor," about an area doctor who performs surgeries on cancer patients using digital imaging to get at hard-to-reach areas.

Evidently, KDKA did an earlier report on this doc and took credit for boosting his business in this week's report. (Is that the station's job? Should they really boast about that?)

The doc says other doctors have been "quietly criticizing his work," which cries out for an interview with another doctor, but this report offered no perspective other than the doctor's and his grateful patients' (even the husband of a woman who died after the surgery). A story on what sounds like an unusual medical procedure already risks offering false hope, but to leave out another doctor's point of view is cause for concern.

Best response

After a Yvonne Zanos consumer report on special plastic bags that didn't do much to keep bananas from rotting, KDKA resident funny guy Ken Rice said, "We would like to tell you no produce was harmed in the filming of that segment, but clearly those bananas, they gave their lives for that report."

'Weeds' loves Pittsburgh

We told you months ago Showtime's "Weeds" would offer another shout-out to Pittsburgh late in the current season, and that episode came about Monday when young Shane Botwin (Alexander Gould), who wanted to move to Pittsburgh at the end of last season, declared, "I don't believe in miracles, I believe in Pittsburgh."

Shane wore a Pittsburgh T-shirt and Pirates hat in Monday's episode and quizzed his uncle on all sorts of Pittsburgh trivia ("What city has 750 bridges and 15 in its Downtown alone?) He also rattled off a list of Pittsburgh neighborhoods in alphabetical order (Allentown, Arlington, Arlington Heights, Banksville, Beechview ...). Alas, viewers also learned Shane is now talking to his dead father.

In the Nov. 19 season finale, viewers will learn Shane has named his turtles "Franco" and "Warhol," but his mom puts the kibosh on Pittsburgh.

"We are never going to move to Pittsburgh," Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) tells Shane. "Mommy hates the cold. If you feel that strongly about it in five years, you can apply to Carnegie Mellon."

"What about Tampa?" Shane asks, already moving on.

Showtime has renewed "Weeds" for a fourth season that will require some new sets after this season finale. The fourth season is likely to air next summer if the writer's strike doesn't drag on too long.

Channel surfing

The writer's strike has claimed another victim: Fox yanked "24" from its January schedule. "24" is being postponed until such time that production can resume and the show can have an uninterrupted on-air run (that could mean bumping the show to fall if the strike goes on a long time). ... PBS's "Nightly Business Report" (7 p.m. weekdays, WQED) will feature Seton Hill University in a report on the business of college football that will air Tuesday. ... Megan Sippey of Valencia was paired with Neil Patrick Harris ("How I Met Your Mother") for "People Celebrity Week" on a "Wheel of Fortune" (7:30 p.m. weekdays, WPXI) episode airing Wednesday. ... Ingrid Wadlow of Gibsonia will be a contestant on "The Price is Right" (11 a.m. weekdays, KDKA) on Thursday.


As always, there's more criticism -- mine and yours, positive and negative -- of local and nationald TV in this week's TV Q&A, which also responds to questions about the writer's strike, "Life" and Steelers fluff. Read it online at post-gazette.com/tv.

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


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