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Published: Monday, 4/9/2001

The product falls short of the promise

When a station bills itself as “Your most local news station,” it should live up to the promise. But a recent edition of WNWO-TV, Channel 24's NBC24 News showed that it's well behind the competition in reporting local stories.

WNWO falls short in sourcing. It even lacks that most basic element of any TV newscast: on-camera reporters.

To test NBC24 News' claim of “most local news,” I picked one newscast at random for review (11 p.m. last Wednesday), counted local stories, and timed them. Then I saw how the results stacked up against other late-evening newscasts the same night.

The local network affiliates offered an almost identical story lineup. WNWO's top story was an old standby: the horrendous highway pileup. In this case, a nonfatal truck crash on U.S. 23. Reporter Kari Howard, sitting in the newsroom, read the details off the TelePrompTer and signed off with the station's awkwardly phrased mantra, “Reporting for NBC24, your most local news station.” It was unclear if Howard had done any on-scene reporting or if she was simply reading over the video shooter's work.

The next major story served as the best example of this station's weak approach to newsgathering. Anchor Angela Atalla narrated a piece about a union push at Toledo Hospital. The script was full of the phrases “many say” and “some say,” journalistic red flags signaling that whoever did the reporting - no reporter was shown on-camera - couldn't find any sources or didn't try to. The only on-camera quote came from a woman identified as “facilities management” at the hospital. But who interviewed her or what authority she had to comment on the union efforts was anybody's guess. Atalla closed by saying “many say they don't like the idea,” without identifying who the “many” were.

For the rest of the brief run of local stories - by my count, five crammed into just over four minutes - Atalla and anchor Jon Clark took turns reading the script. For stories about the murder of an elderly woman in the Old West End (an event that topped other newscasts that night), an escape attempt by a murder suspect, and the abuse of a pregnant dog, they continued to phone it in, reading over various bits of videotape.

In a string of briefs, Atalla uttered one of those grammar-groaners when she described a plan to heat the streets of Frankenmuth as “a very unique project.” Several more times, the anchors reminded viewers “you're watching NBC24, your most local news station.”

So they say. But they were wrong, at least that night.

Fox Toledo News, which airs on WUPW-TV, Channel 36, at 10 p.m., offered the most and best-reported local stories, according to my parsing of last Wednesday's late-evening newscasts. Anchored by Ryan Serber and Laura Emerson, Fox Toledo News offered six local stories spread over 6 1/2 minutes - one to two minutes more local news than the other three affiliates at 11 p.m. WTOL-TV, Channel 11's top-rated Toledo 11 News aired only three local stories (truck crash, a brief on highway construction, and the Old West End murder), unless you also count the 2 1/2-minute plug it gave for its own Teachers Talk special, which will air at 8 p.m. tomorrow.

WUPW's 6 1/2 minutes of local news may not sound like much, but local newscasts, chopped up with 10 minutes of commercials, are crowded with weather, sports, health reports, consumer updates, and thinly disguised promos for network shows. Compared to WNWO's anemic news team, WUPW's was rich with on-the-scene reporters who showed real energy for their assignments.

The best was Joy Lepola's 2 1/2-minute story (lengthy by TV standards) about the Old West End murder, which she opened by saying, “It's been a rollercoaster of emotions for a lot of people in this central Toledo neighborhood.” Cliche perhaps, but it was a good, grabby lead-in to her interviews with several neighbors of the victim. Lepola also filled in the blanks on the suspect (the victim's grandson), reporting in an intelligent, literate style closer to TV newsmagazines than local newscasts. Her report closed with a live shot of her downtown. It was one of those silly “live for the sake of live” gimmicks, but at least it offered evidence that, unlike WNWO, some bodies were still on the clock at the Fox station while we were watching.

  • FAILING GRADE: Give WGTE-TV, Channel 30, a big fat “F” for refusing to air the terrific documentary series American High in prime time. In one of the PBS affiliate's dumbest moves of the TV season, programmer Darren LaShelle yanked the show off the schedule and stuck it in the Siberia of timeslots, 4 a.m. Thursdays, because he felt it “wasn't the best use of our time” and wasn't “right for our audience.” (WBGU-TV, Channel 27, is airing American High in its regular time, 10 p.m. Wednesdays.) WGTE is airing Independent View, a program of interviews with independent filmmakers, at 10 p.m. Wednesdays.

    American High, which chronicles the experiences of a group of students in a Chicago high school, ran just three weeks last summer on Fox before being yanked for low ratings. This year, PBS' new programmer, Pat Mitchell, picked up the show for a full 13-week run in an effort to draw younger viewers to public TV, which currently airs to the oldest viewing audience of any broadcaster. The average PBS viewer is 56.

    Critics loved American High for its honest depictions of high-schoolers. There's the jock, juggling his college ambitions and a clingy girlfriend who doesn't want him to leave town. A gay boy comes out to his best friend, who's immediately cool with it. A sophomore girl finds her creative voice in funky folk songs. These real students were brave enough to turn the cameras on themselves. The result is edgy, funny, and often inspiring. Young viewers loved the show and kept Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards buzzing long after it disappeared from Fox.

    Calling WGTE “a gatekeeper” for its viewers, LaShelle wouldn't say what specifically he objected to on American High. He just didn't want it on. PBS, already the Branson, Mo., of networks with its endless low-brow “specials,” needs more shows like American High. And fewer “gatekeepers” like those at WGTE.

    Elaine Liner is The Blade's media editor. E-mail her at eliner@theblade.com. or call 1-419-724-6126.



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