A natural role for KDKA news chief
"Our role is not to alarm our viewers, it is to inform our viewers," says KDKA-TV news director Coleen Marren
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For new KDKA news director Coleen Marren, preparing her station to cover the G-20 summit takes her back.
After getting a bachelor's degree in English and theater from Central Connecticut State University, Marren studied journalism on the graduate level at Carleton University in Ottawa, where a G-8 summit was held in 1981. She worked as a freelancer for ABC News during that summit, helping to line up live shot locations among other tasks.
But news was a part of Marren's life even during her childhood in Derby, Conn. Her Uncle Ed Cotter, now 90, was a crime reporter for the New Haven (Conn.) Register, and family members were volunteer firefighters. Her mother, wanting to keep track of the movements of everyone in the Irish-Catholic family, had a police scanner in the house. Dinner conversation would come to a halt when the scanner began to squawk.
From an early job working on the assignment desk at WTNH in New Haven to her most recent stint as news director at WCVB in Boston, Marren has worked steadily in TV news. She even once worked for Rick Henry, general manager of WTAE, when he was general manager at Milwaukee's WISN and she was the station's news director. Marren said she contacted Henry "out of respect" before KDKA announced her hiring.
"You'll never go wrong taking the high road," she said.
Marren arrived at KDKA-TV as news director this summer and soon after found her new colleagues rushing out to cover the L.A. Fitness shooting in Collier as breaking news. Of course, breaking news can be a touchy subject with some viewers who have come to abhor the term and its associated sound and graphics cues to the point that they've quit watching local newscasts.
"I will agree with many viewers there is an over-use across the industry of breaking news," Marren said. "We discuss in our newsroom when we think it should be 'breaking news,' when we think it should be a 'developing story' and when it's just straight news. ... It's an imperfect science and we're human beings, but we do discuss it, and I think you'll see we do breaking news less than our competitors because we talk about."
She pointed to the example of the news that Michael Jackson's death was determined to be a homicide, which she said KDKA did not label breaking news.
"That was about stepping back, having respect for our viewers and what their interest is," Marren said. "Our role is not to alarm our viewers, it is to inform our viewers."
(Still, what's the point of labeling the release of the security perimeter for the G-20 as breaking news, which KDKA did Tuesday? It's new information but not urgent, immediately impactful news that warrants the breaking news treatment.)
Beyond this week's addition of Jennifer Antkowiak to KDKA's morning newscasts beginning Sept. 21, Marren has no immediate plans for changes at the station.
"I think we'll polish some things, but not a lot of things need to be changed," Marren said. One minor alteration: The backdrops behind the anchors on KDKA's renovated set, which some viewers have perceived to be "dirty glass," will be replaced.
Local stations are plotting their G-20 coverage plans, but they'll also be negotiating the minefield of viewer expectations: The summit takes place smack dab in the middle of fall TV premiere week, meaning pre-emptions in prime time, especially, will be met with outrage among some viewers.
"For us to cut into [regular] programming, it would have to be something very significant," KDKA's Marren said.
"The goal is to avoid doing that," said Channel 4's Alex Bongiorno, imagining the calls of frustration from fans of "Grey's Anatomy," which has a two-hour season premiere on Sept. 24.
WPXI news director Corrie Harding said he'll try to avoid pre-empting prime time, but daytime will be a different matter.
"We will not be bashful about interrupting programming to make sure people have the information they need," Harding said. That includes the impact of the summit on local traffic, which might be just as important to viewers, if not moreso, than conversations coming out of the G-20 gathering. "The arrivals are anticipated during the day and the protest actions are anticipated during the day, but there are a lot of unknowns out there."
One of those unknowns is how authorities plan to distribute information to the media.
"The city and the county and other agencies will have a coordinated communications effort with the media, and they're still working out the details of how and where that's going to happen," Harding said, "a single point where we can go to get the information authorities want to get out."
A call about media communication efforts to spokeswoman Joanna Doven in Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office was not returned.
Stations will have reporters stationed at locations around Downtown, and their safety is a primary concern.
"I wouldn't say it's a concern as much as it's a priority," Bongiorno said. "We're definitely making it a priority, ensuring we are being very communicative with our staff. We had a safety expert come in, someone who does seminars on protest groups and safety during protesting. We're being very proactive, like the motto: Hope for the best but prepare for the worst."
WPXI's Harding said the station has worked on several different outfits for on-location reporters to wear, including helmets and plastic suits to protect them from anything that might be thrown by protestors.
"We'll try not to put [our reporters] in a position where there's too much of a safety concern, but obviously we have a responsibility to report, and when they have to go into those areas, they'll be dressed appropriately," Harding said.
In addition, local stations have each other's backs.
"I've actually had a conversation with at least one other news director, and we're of the same like mind that if our crews can help look out for one another while out there, they should," Bongiorno said. "We want to get the story, we want to be competitive and you always want to win the big story, but looking out for each other is a great thing. There's camaraderie in this business and it's something we like to see happen when big events go on."
As far as special G-20 programming goes, KDKA plans nothing in addition to its regular newscasts. WPXI will add a 4:30 a.m. newscast the week of Sept. 21 to cover traffic conditions and a 4 p.m. broadcast Sept. 24 and 25. Channel 11 will also air "The World Comes to Pittsburgh" (7 p.m. Sept. 23), a one-hour preview of the G-20 event.
Bongiorno indicated WTAE will offer some special G-20-related programming beyond the bounds of the station's newscasts, but those programs will not air in prime time. She declined to offer specifics for competitive reasons.
WQED's "On Q" returns from its summer hiatus early on Sept. 21 to cover the summit with each day's episode devoted to a different aspect of the summit, including why Pittsburgh was chosen (Sept 21) and protestors (Sept. 23). In addition, a live town hall meeting will air at 8 p.m. Sept. 24.
Veteran Fox animated comedy "King of the Hill" ends its run Sunday with back-to-back episodes beginning at 8 p.m.
CBS's "As the World Turns" will be holding auditions and shooting scenes in four cities this fall: Philadelphia; Greenville, S.C.; Cincinnati; and Pittsburgh.
An open casting call will be held Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., at the Mall at Robinson in the central court near Starbucks. No word yet on when in October "World" will be in Pittsburgh for filming.
The fall TV preview in TV Week is set to appear in the Post-Gazette on Sept. 20, but some series return early, including the following shows due back next week: "The Biggest Loser," "Bones," "Fringe," "Gossip Girl," "The Office," "One Tree Hill," "Parks and Recreation," "SNL Weekend Update Thursday" and "Survivor."
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Today's TV Q&A responds to questions about TV ratings, "Dark Blue" and "Weekend Today." Tuned In Journal includes blog posts about "Adoption Diaries" and the return of Jennifer Antkowiak to KDKA-TV. Read online TV coverage at post-gazette.com/tv.
In this week's Tuned In podcast, online features editor Sharon Eberson and I discuss "Glee," new shows on The CW ("Melrose Place," "Vampire Diaries") and NBC's Jay Leno gambit. Listen or subscribe at post-gazette.com/podcast.
First Published September 11, 2009 12:00 am