Tuned In: Pittsburgh-based director adds producer duties for 'Sprites'

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Disney Channel's preschool series "Johnny and the Sprites" returns with the first of 13 new episodes at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow, and Pittsburgh-based puppeteer/director Jim Martin helped guide the show in a new direction for its second season.

Martin, who won four daytime Emmys for directing PBS's "Sesame Street," returned as a director for the second season of "Sprites" and added the new role as supervising producer.

"Johnny" stars Tony nominee John Tartaglia ("Avenue Q") as the title character who befriends some colorful, furry puppets, the Sprites. In the first season, only Johnny could see the Sprites, but in tomorrow's premiere his friend Gwen (Natalie Belcon) meets the Sprites, and Johnny and Gwen travel to the Grove where the Sprites live.

"The way the show was imagined in the first season, the Sprites would go through a portal in a tree to get to the Grove. John never got to go to the Grove," Martin said Monday by phone from his office at the Kaufman-Astoria studios in Queens, N.Y. "When we looked at kids' reactions, kids were not getting the portal and the Grove. They didn't understand all of that. Plus, we had this beautiful set and John was never in it."

Martin, 57, was too busy with production duties and directing to operate a puppet on "Johnny." He said the new season will include more guest stars, often drawing from a pool of Broadway musical theater actors, including Fox Chapel native Christian Borle as a troll and Chita Rivera as the Queen of all Magical Beings.

There's also a shift in the music. While the show still uses original Broadway-style songs (one per story; each episode contains two stories), Martin said the songs will no longer move the story forward but will continue to be related to the story.

"If you do a Broadway-style song that drives the plot, little kids don't get it," he said. "We found our audiences loved the music, but they didn't understand that the words in the singing was a way of explaining the story."

Production on the new season wrapped two weeks ago, and Martin and his wife expect to return to their Perry Hilltop home for a few weeks before he has to be back in New York to work on a new season of "Sesame Street." Martin directs episodes of the long-running PBS kids' show and operates Oscar the Grouch's right hand.

"For many years Oscar had only one arm because [puppeteer] Carroll [Spinney] performs Oscar and uses his right hand to operate Oscar's head and his left arm is Oscar's left arm," Martin explained. When a script called for Oscar to use two hands, Spinney invited Martin to scrunch down with him behind the trash can and help bring Oscar to animated life. "You really have to like a person when you're jammed so close with him!"

Despite work that calls for him to spend a lot of time in New York, Martin happily maintains a residence in Pittsburgh.

"Everybody has to have a home, and Pittsburgh has always been my home," Martin said. "There are people there I love and want to see and be with. When I can't do this anymore, I want to still stay in Pittsburgh. Commuting to New York for 25 years is kind of nuts, but that was the thing I did because I had family in Pittsburgh."

Local wants to be 'Girlicious'

The CW announced its cast for "The Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious," and it includes 21-year-old Alexis, who lists her hometown as -- all together now -- Pittsburgh. The CW won't give out her last name, so if you know it, please e-mail me.

This is the second season for the reality competition "The Pussycat Dolls Present." Last year the show set out to find a new member for the skanktastic girl group of the show's title (their hit song asks, "Don'cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?"). This year, judges Robin Antin, Lil' Kim and Geffen Records chairman Ron Fair will start a new group called Girlicious.

Alexis names Martina McBride as her favorite musical act, which seems pretty tame for an aspiring Pussycat Dolls-style star. Still, I can't help but think that losing on this show might be considered a small victory if a contestant is not deemed "girlicious" enough for the group.

To board or not to board

A viewer e-mailed after reading in yesterday's Post-Gazette that KDKA-TV reporter Jon Delano was named to the board of directors of Pennsylvania American Water. The viewer wondered if this meant KDKA would no longer cover water rates and associated matters in municipalities served by PAW because of the potential for conflict of interest. I wondered the same thing and e-mailed Delano and KDKA news director John Verrilli and put the question to them.

"KDKA-TV management was not consulted in advance of Jon's appointment to the board of the Pennsylvania American Water Co.," Verrilli responded by e-mail. "After Jon was made aware of the station's concerns about the appearance of a conflict of interest, Jon has made the decision to resign from the PAW board effective today."

Other local TV personalities serve on boards, including WTAE's Sally Wiggin, who is on the board of directors of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. She's also reported stories about zoo animals.

WTAE news director Bob Longo said Wiggin has long had a personal interest in animals and early in life considered a career as a zoologist (her bio on the station Web site notes she is an "avid animal lover" who owns two dogs and a horse).

"The stories she gets at the zoo are a result of her personal relationship with staff members over the years, and by being a good reporter who asks questions. ... They have nothing to do with her being on the board," Longo wrote in an e-mail. "When and if there are issues, as there were at the zoo several years ago, Sally is not part of the coverage."

It would be an overreaction to say a reporter is allowed no community involvement outside his or her news job, but news personnel must strive to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest and pass on stories connected to the organizations they choose to be involved with.

"The only policy we have is we seriously investigate any outside activity for potential conflict of interest," said WPXI news director Corrie Harding. "But there is no written prohibition of those kind of activities."

WTAE's Longo said Channel 4 has no set policy either.

"While we encourage all our folks to be active in our community, we guard against any potential conflict of interest should a topical, timely or breaking news-type situation occur," he explained.

WPXI hires anchor

Channel 11, which has been without a permanent weekend morning anchor since Vince Sims moved to a weekday reporting shift in the fall, has hired Danielle Nottingham from WDJT in Milwaukee. In addition to anchoring weekend mornings, she'll report three days a week. She starts work at the station Jan. 28.

Nottingham is a graduate of Syracuse University and has a master's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Comcast additions

Comcast has added Si TV as Channel 176 on local cable systems. Si TV is an English-language channel that targets Latino viewers ages 18-to-34.

The cable company also has added six new video on-demand shows to its lineup of local programming in the "Your Town" folder. New shows in the sports sub-folder include "Pittsburgh Sports 2007" and "WPIAL 100 Years."

The entertainment sub-folder now features "Let's Get Organized," in which author/organizer Meryl Starr helps Pittsburgh newlyweds get situated in their new home, and a new edition of "Discover Pittsburgh" on winter activities.

The college life sub-folder features "All-American Football Show" about Penn State's Alamo Bowl appearance. The University of Pittsburgh sub-folder features "The Agnus Berenato Show" about the Pitt women's basketball team.

Channel surfing

Fox's "American Idol" launched its seventh season as the biggest show of the year, but it still declined 11 percent (4 million viewers) from its sixth season premiere. ... NBC has ordered an Americanized pilot of the BBC America series "Top Gear."


This week's TV Q&A responds to questions about the writers' strike, "Doctor Who" and WTAE's promos. Read it online at post-gazette.com/tv.

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112.


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