Smizik on TV: No news from Cowher was big news

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Wednesday of last week had all the makings of a slow news day locally -- only the Penguins were scheduled to play -- and it seemed like a good time to monitor the city's three 11 p.m. newscasts to see how creative they could be with their sports coverage. But the slow news day changed shortly after 7 p.m. when the story broke that Bill Cowher had told the Carolina media he would be making a decision on his future at the end of the season.

In reality, it was no news at all. Of course, he would be making a decision at the end of the season. That was a foregone conclusion. But it was one he had never spoken, so, this being Pittsburgh, it was major news.

WPXI and WTAE led with the news on Cowher. KDKA stuck with the Penguins, thus breaking the cardinal rule of local news, which is: Steelers, Steelers, Steelers.

On WPXI, John Fedko went sensational by proclaiming, "Sounds like [Cowher] will be gone once the season ends." He well may be, but nothing he said that day gave such a clear indication of his future. Jon Burton at WTAE played it straight, just reporting the news.

Both stations followed the Cowher news with tired but compulsory locker room interviews with Steelers players about the upcoming game at Carolina. WPXI spent 55 seconds and WTAE about 30 seconds on the interviews.

On the Penguins, WPXI spent 40 seconds with Fedko talking over game highlights and wrapped up its sportscast in 2 minutes, 30 seconds. It did not interview any players. WTAE went 50 seconds with Penguins' highlights and then another minute with Guy Junker at the Civic Arena and player interviews. Its sportscast lasted almost three minutes and was followed by 15 seconds of absolutely rib-splitting happy talk between Burton and the three others on the set.

KDKA, the station that carries most Steelers games and which has more auxiliary Steelers programming than any of its competitors, opted to lead with the Penguins. Did it ever! The stations showed an over-the-top 1 minute, 45 seconds of Penguins' highlights as John Steigerwald rhapsodized over Sidney Crosby's six-point game. It followed that with 30 seconds of player interviews and 10 second on Crosby's position in the scoring race.

After briefly mentioning the Cowher news, KDKA cut away for 2 minutes, 40 seconds of commercials. For those who did not turn off their television or change stations, an action such programming merits, they got 30 seconds of news about Cowher. At about 3 minutes, 35 seconds, KDKA had the longest sportscast, and typically does.

Is it live, or is it ...

The absolute obsession with local news being live can sometimes prove dangerous. On KDKA's postgame show following the Steelers win against Carolina Sunday, the station made it clear it was going live to Bill Cowher's news conference. It wasn't. It showed a tape of the news conference. Why a station would damage its credibility over such a minor point is baffling.

What's going on?

With all due respect to the programming geniuses at Clear Channel, and there is no sarcasm intended, what exactly are their plans with the afternoon drive time sports-talk show on Fox Sports Radio 970? More to the point, why does Clear Channel treat Joe Bendel like a second-class talent?

Bendel and Tim Benz are the guys brought in by Clear Channel -- Benz from ESPN Radio 1250 and Bendel from the Steelers' beat at the Tribune-Review -- to replace Stan Savran. In the eyes of many, that was a large assignment. Their first ratings book, which came out in October, brought numbers similar to Savran's, which was a positive.

No one would dispute that the first hour of any show is the most important. So why at 3 p.m., when they are taking on the entrenched Mark Madden at ESPN Radio 1250, does Benz go solo? Why is Bendel not allowed on the air until 4 p.m.? These guys are progressing well as a team, and their nicknames, the Shark, for the large Bendel, and the Minnow, for the diminutive Benz, is a good one and is catching on.

No disrespect to Benz, who had been praised in this column, it's a better show with the two of them. Clear Channel should bring Bendel in at 3 p.m. and run the show until 6, allowing the two partners to sign off together. As it is, Bendel goes it alone from 6 until 7 p.m. Some of the station's auxiliary programming on the Steelers is first-rate and might be more appealing to listeners at 6 p.m. than a fourth hour of Bendel or Madden.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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