After watching newscasts this past sweeps month, I was struck by how much the local TV news landscape has changed in recent years. Most noticeably, I'm struck by the differences in WTAE's news product.
If you go back five to 10 years, Channel 4's brand in the market was different than it is today. Back then it was unquestionably hipper than KDKA while being just as likely to air feature stories as Channel 2. Channel 4 was also less hard news oriented than WPXI.
WTAE was always more likely to report a pop-culture-tinged story than its competitors. I don't mean Channel 4 would just use a national story from the feed but a local story with some sort of pop-culture angle, whether it was the filming of a "Trading Spaces" episode locally or the opening of the area's first Sonic, a fast food chain with a cult following. That was especially true on the 5 p.m. broadcast when Scott Baker and Michelle Wright were the anchors.
That more youthful, pop-culture flavor allowed WTAE to occupy a middle ground between traditional KDKA and all-news-no-fluff WPXI.
But that's no longer where WTAE lives. Through anchor shuffles and changes in focus, WTAE now hews much closer in tone to WPXI. Hard news is in, anchor banter is out. It was especially noticeable last week when Channel 4 led with the killer whale attack at SeaWorld in Florida at both 5 and 5:30 p.m., just one of a half-dozen reports on animals in danger or killed that aired in a week's time.
WTAE continues to be the leader in investigative stories and the station does offer feature reports, but they tend to be linked to a franchise (Sally Wiggin and Ms. Wright have both been doing a lot of medical reports). With the departure of Aaron Saykin last year, consumer stories have largely gone by the wayside.
At the same time, WPXI has been doing more consumer stories during sweeps, often fronted by morning anchor Jennifer Abney. The station has hired a new full-time consumer investigator who will begin working at Channel 11 next month.
KDKA has cemented its position as the station most likely to do a feel-good story at 5 or 6 p.m. and do it well. David Highfield's report on a local church's Lenten fish fry last week was the perfect example of an upbeat story with wide appeal to Pittsburgh viewers, especially older news viewers.
KDKA also offered the best news-you-can-use stories last month. John Shumway is especially adept at explainer-style reports, whether it's clearing snow from the roof or how to work from home. KDKA also reports more pop-culture stories than it did a decade ago.
These are just one viewer's observations after overdosing on local news for the past month. Now I'm curious to hear what viewers think of local news, not your pet peeves, but your impressions of the local channels, why you watch the news station you watch, what influences your choice of station and whether your preferred station has changed in recent years. E-mail me at email@example.com (or write to me at 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222) and include your name, age, location and daytime telephone number. I'll publish some of the responses in a future column.
Before we get to the local ratings for February sweeps, let's put a few caveats up front: This was an Olympics month, which means ratings for WPXI's 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts were impacted by pre-emptions and/or delayed start times (sometimes for better with hockey, sometimes for worse with less popular sports).
We couldn't make comparisons to last year anyway because of the switch to Local People Meters last summer, which puts any apples-to-apples, year-to-year comparisons on hold until July.
With that in mind, all the stations have some reason to be happy because news ratings were up in almost every time period compared to January. Presumably all the snow the region received in February piqued viewer interest in the weather forecast.
KDKA continued to reign as ratings champ everywhere but in the morning, placing first at noon, 4, 5, 6 and 11 p.m. in households and in the adult 25-54 demo with the exception of a tie with WTAE at 6 p.m. in head-to-head competition. (KDKA's local news still won the full 6 p.m. hour in the demo versus the combination of local and national news on WTAE.)
If there's one battlefield time slot, it's early evening news time periods. In the adults 25-54 demographic, four-tenths of a ratings point is all the separated the No. 1 station (KDKA) from the No. 3 station (WPXI) at 5 p.m. And at 6 p.m. the margin was even smaller: two-tenths of a ratings point between No. 1 (a KDKA-WTAE tie) and No. 3 (WPXI).
KDKA feature reporter Dave Crawley has been off the air for about a month while recovering from prostate cancer surgery.
Mr. Crawley was diagnosed in December and underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., at the end of January and stayed for a month of follow-ups (but he had no chemotherapy or radiation). He's now back in town and will return to work Thursday.
"At this point, the doctor says I should expect a full recovery," Mr. Crawley said yesterday. He said he's eager to get back to work where he's been doing more day-of human interest reports in recent months in addition to his "KD Country" features. "I picked a good time to be out of Pittsburgh. Minnesota was colder, but we got hardly any snow, which was astonishing."
A bright spot during his time away was the publication of his third book of poetry, "Reading, Rhyming and 'Rithmetic" ($17.95, Wordsong). Book signing dates and locations will be listed at KDKA.com/kdcountry once they have been scheduled.
Mr. Crawley said the rights to poems from his first two books, "Cat Poems" and "Dog Poems," have been purchased for use in elementary school standardized tests in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Florida and Canada.
Spike TV has renewed comedy series "Blue Mountain State" for a second season. ... A new season of "Dr. Who," with actor Matt Smith taking over the title role, premieres April 17 on BBC America. ... NBC will bring back "Last Comic Standing" this summer with a new host: actor Craig Robinson, who plays Darryl on "The Office." ... The 14th season of "South Park" begins March 17. ... Sunday at 6:30 p.m., WQED airs "Tim Janis Celebrate America With Western Pennsylvania," a high school choir performance show featuring choirs from Butler Senior, Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Central Catholic, Fox Chapel Area, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Pine-Richland, Plum Senior, Seneca Valley, Shaler Area, Pittsburgh Allderdice, Upper St. Clair and Western Beaver high schools.
In today's online TV Q&A, there are responses to questions about "Ellen," "In Treatment" and TV show start times. Tuned In Journal includes posts on mocking TV news, the "Nip/Tuck" series finale and "The Marriage Ref." Read online TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
In this week's Tuned In podcast, online features editor Sharon Eberson and I discuss "The Good Wife," "Southland" and "Nip/Tuck." Listen or subscribe at post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV editor Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1112. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published March 5, 2010 5:00 AM