Tuned In: WTAE's news director hits the ground running

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She's been on the job for a little more than a month, but already, WTAE news director Alex Bongiorno has her hands full.

In addition to live coverage of the Stanton Heights shooting of three police officers, reports on the aftermath and hours of coverage of the memorial service, and a live mayoral candidates debate, Bongiorno walked into a Channel 4 newsroom that was down at least three prominent positions. The station is in need of a sports anchor (to replace Jon Burton, who was let go in December), weekend anchor (to replace Jake Ploeger, who left the business of his own accord earlier this year) and a fourth meteorologist (a position open since Don Schwenneker left for a job in Chicago at the end of 2007).

With Steelers training camp coming up, Bongiorno said filling the vacant sports position is her top priority.

"I want someone who will be valuable for Pittsburgh," said Bongiorno, 39. "When I hire, I hire not just for the station, I hire for the people, for the area -- who's going to do the best job and give our viewers what they need and want and expect."

She acknowledged figuring all those things out when you're new to the city is a challenge. Her goal is to have someone in the sports position by fall at the latest. The other open positions will have to wait.

"With all the other things going on, a lot of it is about finding my footing, because it's not about me coming in here, doing things my way based on a lack of information," she said. "I'm very much about arming myself with information and making sure our decisions are good decisions based on information I gather over a period of time, and the key word is 'time.' "

It will be interesting to see what information Bongiorno gathers about how viewers feel about Channel 4's on-air talent. More than any other local station, WTAE has shown a willingness to play musical chairs with most of its high-profile news anchors and meteorologists, much to the consternation of more than a few change-resistant Pittsburgh viewers.

"I'm one of those people who likes to make decisions that have longevity," Bongiorno said. "Swapping out people isn't a one-sided decision. Anchors and people in this business have their own plans and agendas. I don't know the history of decisions that have been made. What I do know is I like there to be stability. ... I don't anticipate making any changes. I think the people we have in place right now are the right people."

Perhaps predictably for a newly hired newsroom leader, Bongiorno has nothing but praise for the staff she inherited, and she wasn't prepared to name any areas in need of improvement. She said the Channel 4 staff is more engaged than newsroom employees in other markets.

"They genuinely care about what they're doing," she said, "and they want to get it right."

Bongiorno comes to WTAE from WSPA in Spartanburg, S.C., where she was news director for 18 months after joining the station as an executive producer and de facto assistant news director 31/2 years ago. Prior to that she worked as a producer at stations in Tampa, Las Vegas and Charleston, S.C. She's married to Scott Bongiorno, a former TV news videographer who's now a stay-at-home dad to their sons, ages 4 and 6.

A 1995 graduate of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Bongiorno grew up near Stafford, Va. Pittsburgh is the farthest north she has lived, but she has wanted to work in television since she was 7.

Her initial instinct was to be an on-air reporter but, after hanging around a TV station where her husband had an internship, the news director there suggested she consider a job as a producer instead.

"They get to get their hands into facts and information and the big picture," Bongiorno said over lunch earlier this week.

She said she's not a fan of slapping the "breaking news" banner on "anything and everything. Ultimately, it's a decision that's made on a case-by-case basis."

And she doesn't like sending reporters to do live shots from dark places where news was made hours earlier.

"If you're going to go somewhere, show me something," she said.

Bongiorno has picked up on one of Channel 4's traditional strengths, the diversity of content in its newscasts, particularly at 5 p.m.

"It's not your typical, standard fare of what everyone feels the newscast should be, 'Let's go after the murder of the day or the crime of the day,' " she said. "There really is a lot of content that has to do with real-life snapshots of what life is like. Too often TV news is turned into a snapshot of the worst parts of life. I noticed from the get-go [that WTAE] doesn't do that. There are thought-provoking conversations that prevent that."

Brown still recovering

KDKA-TV evening news anchor Patrice King Brown has been off the air since late February, sidelined while recovering from surgery on a torn Achilles tendon. She had hoped to return to work in time for a portion of March sweeps. She didn't. May sweeps began yesterday.

"I'm anxious to get back," Brown said this week, noting that she's appreciated the cards from viewers. Her new goal is to be back at the KDKA anchor desk by the first week of May.

Welles out at WPXI

Karen Welles, who has been missing from Channel 11 newscasts since late March, said this week that she's no longer employed by WPXI.

"I can't say what happened," she said by phone. "I'm open to any and all offers in television, out of television, whatever."

She would not say if she's had talks with other Pittsburgh stations.

News director Corrie Harding said he told the staff, "We mutually agreed to move in separate directions, and I wish Karen the best in her future endeavors. And that's about all we're going to have to say on it."

Welles was active in the station's sweeps month investigative pieces and Harding said he plans to fill the position. But with May sweeps starting yesterday, the focus will shift to consumer stories, something Channel 11 did more of in March sweeps with morning anchor Jennifer Abney reporting.

'Frontline' on the mentally ill

Next week PBS's "Frontline" (9 p.m. Tuesday, WQED) explores the issue of what happens to mentally ill offenders after they leave prison in "The Released."

Among those featured is Pittsburgher Ben Anthony, who benefits from diversion to the Allegheny County Mental Health Court, which seeks to treat the mentally ill to help keep them out of prison.

Keep or Cancel poll

Voting in the Post-Gazette's annual Keep or Cancel poll continues this week. If you haven't cast a ballot yet, please do. So far, baby boomers are under-represented in voting compared to past polls.

'Kings,' 'Motherhood' pulled

Speaking of shows likely to be canceled, NBC, after downgrading "Kings" to little-watched Saturday night, has pulled the drama from its lineup. The remaining episodes will be burned off on Saturdays this summer, beginning June 13.

ABC has yanked its Thursday night sitcoms, "In the Motherhood" and "Samantha Who?," returning "Ugly Betty" to the time period a week earlier than planned. "Betty" will be back Thursday. "Samantha" remains a contender to return in the fall, but "Motherhood" won't be renewed.

Channel surfing

ABC will bring "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and host Regis Philbin back to prime time for a two-week, 10th anniversary run beginning Aug. 9. ... NBC's "Saturday Night Live" concludes its season with original episodes May 9 (Justin Timberlake hosts with musical guest Ciara) and May 16 (Will Ferrell hosts with musical guest Green Day). ... Sewickley native Dan Cortese will be among eight celebrities teaming with eight athletes for ABC's summer reality competition series "The Superstars," premiering at 8 p.m. June 23.

Tuned In online

Tuned In Journal includes reviews of "Life After People" and "The Phone" and previews of National Geographic Channel's "Waking the Baby Mammoth" and "The TV Land Awards." Today's TV Q&A (post-gazette.com/tv) responds to questions about "Southland," "Survivor" and FCC rules.

On this week's Tuned In Podcast, Post-Gazette A&E Web editor Sharon Eberson and I discuss the DVD release of "Caprica," last week's sci-fi-themed "CSI" episode and bubble shows. Listen or subscribe at post-gazette.com/podcast.

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


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