Will Hughes Staff writer
Section: SHOW,  Page: H1

Date: Sunday, January 22, 1989

Correction: ******** CORRECTION, PUBLISHED JANUARY 28, 1989, FOLLOWS: ******** A chart in the Jan.22 Sunday Times Union "Show" section accompanying an analysis of local television news shows contained incorrect information. The November 1988 Nielsen rating or WNTY (Channel 13) at 6 p.m. weekdays should have been listed as 15 rather than 14. The information used in the chart came from the Nielsen ratings book, which listed what actually was a seven-day average as covering only Monday through Friday.

When something major occurs - like on Jan. 13, when flames licking two giant propane tanks in rustic Johnsonville threatened to level a half-mile of northern Rensselaer County - local television news can bring the smoke and wailing sirens right into your living room.

If you had one of those split-screen televisions and watched WRGB (Channel 6), WTEN (Channel 10) and WNYT (Channel 13) simultaneously for a week, you'd find that the news is the same but the stations aren't. Each station is stamped by its style. The midwinter rating sweeps, usually measured in February, begin Monday.

Until Feb. 19, you'll be treated to week-long series and special reports and hype as the stations try to convince every household in the 14- county metropolitan area who has the best local news.

We watched every news broadcast aired Jan. 9-13. This is what we found.

It was a good week for news. Not that the news - a proposal to tax gasoline in Albany County, explosions in Rensselaer County, icy roads, state worker layoffs or President Reagan's farewell address to the nation, among others - was all that good.

But there were major local, regional, national and international stories.

Surprisingly, there were few exclusive stories. And none of those was a major story.

Ratings underdog WTEN scored the best scoops. They were the first, on Jan. 10 at 6 p.m., with the story of a Colonie firefighter who had a record of arson convictions, a report WRGB and WNYT featured prominently at 11 p.m.

WTEN was also the only station to carry a report on alleged police brutality in Albany on Jan. 13.

Another "exclusive" was WNYT's Bill Lambdin's Jan. 10 story hinting WGY president Dennis Israel may be using the station for "personal or political gain."

Israel denied the allegation which was based on statements by two unidentified "on- air staffers" and an angry letter written by Israel's wife to a cleaning service.

Also mentioned was the fact - widely reported last summer - that Israel headed a "Broadcasters for Bush" group and that Israel may be a candidate for Schenectady City Council. The report was ignored by the other stations, perhaps because of its reliance on unnamed sources and innuendo.

"This has nothing to do with broadcasting," Israel tells Lambdin. "You're adding up two and two and it doesn't make four."

Mostly the stations shared the same 15 to 20 stories each night, occasionally playing them in different order.

There were, however, dramatic differences in the way stories were presented.

WTEN had more graphics, and they were the most eye-catching. WRGB also deserves mention in this area, especially for its weather map clouds that leak precipitation. Very nice.

Here's a station-by-station comparision:

Bigger is sometimes better and the nation's first television station proves that in the local news department.

The Nielsen and Arbitron ratings leader, WRGB airs more news than any other station. (See related story.)

The station takes advantage of its large staff of experienced reporters to offer a comprehensive and authoritative report with close attention to basic tenets of journalism, such as balance and attribution.

At 6 p.m., WRGB typically previewed events such as County Executive James Coyne's state of the county address (Jan. 9) or Schenectady officials touring the city to make a decision on street lighting (Jan. 11), then followed up with a complete report at 11 p.m.

From its "First News" at 6:30 a.m. until the 11 p.m broadcast, WRGB continually updated stories throughout the day.

Anchor Ernie Tetrault, one of the area's longest-tenured newsmen, and co- anchor Tracy Egan, who is the station's health editor, host a fast-paced and comprehensive report.

Short stories of 20 and 30 seconds are interspersed with longer, lavishly illustrated packages of one to three minutes.

Even the shorts are well-packaged in segments like "Nightcap." The latest Pentagon spy case, the Cubans leaving Angola, troubled savings and loan associations, the stabbing of a Glens Falls man and Mall Airways getting permission to fly again were covered in one two-minute "Nightcap" on Jan 10. Most of the stories were illustrated with footage or a logo.

The station draws on reporters like Ken Screven, Judy Sanders, Mary Beth Wenger and John Brice to provide insight as well as detail. The full hour of news at 6 p.m. allows WRGB reporters to develop stories and stretch out with them.

On Jan. 9, Wenger followed up on a Saratoga County van accident with an enterprise report on the practice of removing steel studs from the frames of the vehicles while customizing them.

A Jan. 12 report by Sanders on a Troy drug bust included not only the details of the criminal arraignment but interviews with the property owner, Troy city councilman Brian Sanvidge, neighbors, police and even one of the people arrested.

Tetrault and Egan are unobtrusive but tend to the apparently obligatory chit-chat with reporters on the set or at the station's Capitol Bureau.

Sometimes this conversation involved pointed questions such as Tetrault asking Screven, on Jan. 13, how close the Johnsonville propane tanks were to the nearest houses.

Other times, it appeared reporters held back important facts so the air talent would have something to chat about.

"Is the practice (removing steel studs) safe?" Egan asks Wenger in a question-and- answer segment following the report on vans.

"Well, there's no clear-cut answer," replies Wenger, which was probably why she didn't put it in the report.

"NewsCenter 6:30," hosted by Liz Bishop and Brian Burnell, featured long (three- to five-minute) stories on some of the day's news. A segment during the 6 p.m. report previews these each day, typical of the promotion all the stations do.

Rather than rehash the previous night's scores at 6 p.m., Jim Brennan showcases participatory sports in a segment called "Family Sports." Topics ranged from how skiers can keep in shape without snow (Jan. 9) to snowmobile accidents (Jan. 13).

During the week, WRGB was bedeviled with a host of technical problems ranging from loss of sound, the wrong footage turning up on the screen and the seeming inability of people at the Capitol Bureau to hear what was being said to them.

WRGB also tended to sensationalize the weather. You'd be told in the ever- present teasers things like "Snow, on the way" (Jan. 10) and then learn the snow was on its way to northern Vermont.

Television without technical difficulties is probably as elusive as a newspaper without typographical errors, but in a week of viewing, there were no discernible gliches in WTEN's broadcasts.

Using shorts and lengthy packages (up to three minutes), anchors Dick Wood - another veteran newsman - and Marci Elliot present a solid, thorough and well-paced report.

WTEN was clearly the best-edited. Footage flowed smoothly from introductions and kept pace with the narration. Footage, like a tight closeup of the twisted wreckage of the Latham air crash (Jan. 13), was exquisitely cropped.

Footage from the ABC network, Satellite News Network and local cameramen was assembled into visually stunning illustrations.

Renee Chenault's Jan. 9 package on teenage drinking focused on Drew Barrymore's admission that the young celebrity had been drinking since age 11. After introducing the topic using file and wire footage of the Barrymores, Chenault interviewed local children, police and substance abuse counselors to develop a strong local angle on a national story.

Wood and Elliot often filled the conversational void with facts.

Following a package on smoking (Jan. 11), Wood mentioned how many people die each year from smoking, even though the number of smokers has declined nationally. Elliot added that women and teenagers are still taking up smoking at record rates.

Following a similar report on WNYT, anchorperson Chris Kapostasy noted, "If Ed (Dague) can quit (smoking), anyone can."

WTEN also updated its 11 p.m. newscasts well. On Jan. 10, John McLoughlin broke the story at 6 p.m. that a Colonie firefighter had been previously convicted of arson.

Rather than ride on the laurels of being first, McLoughlin developed it, learning by 11 p.m. that Assemblyman Arnold Proskin, R-Colonie, would introduce legislation to address the broader issue of background checks on volunteers.

McLoughlin's report was balanced, not dwelling solely on the sensational aspect of a convicted arsonist fighting fires, but exploring the difficulties small fire departments have running background checks.

"And even if background checks were conducted in Colonie, they would not have learned that the firefighter in question had had a record, because he was convicted as a youthful offender and those records are sealed," McLoughlin tells Wood and Elliot after the report.

WTEN's sports report was also well- edited and illustrated, balanced between local and national action.

All the stations used some sort of still photo behind weather almanac information, but WTEN used different bucolic footage behind their almanac each night, such as water cascading over the Cohoes dam, and used music while a myriad of local sports scores scrolled past.

While the emphasis is on "showing" the viewer the news of the day using narration, graphics and footage at the other stations, WNYT anchors Ed Dague and Chris Kapostasy tend to "tell" you the stories.

The faces of the anchors clearly dominate the broadcast. WNYT had the most unillustrated stories and its packages were likely to contain a lengthy introduction by the anchors.

But the reliance on personality occasionally leads to journalistic pitfalls.

While all three stations reported Jan. 13 that the explosion of the propane tanks in Johnsonville would leave a half-mile crater, WNYT failed to attribute this statement to fire officials.

While WTEN and WRGB topped their reports on the fire with the specific location, WNYT explained how reporter Phil Bayly was near the blaze on his day off and witnessed the early stages of the fire and subsequent explosions.

That's nice but not at the expense of the exact location of this less- than- well-known Rensselaer County hamlet. This is television station that leaves you screaming at the screen, "Where the hell is Johnsonville?"

To each his own. Usually rating second in the Nielsens and Arbitrons, WNYT has an exceptionally strong base of viewers ages 18-45.

Grandfatherly Ed Dague is one of the longest-tenured journalists in the market. A generation has grown up being told the news of the day by Dague, who also functions as the managing editor of WNYT news. His credibility is at the center of the report.

Reporters were routinely edited out of stories, sometimes quite annoyingly. Voices - other than Dague's or Kapostasy's - were sometimes not identified. And many times you'd see news sources talking into a microphone held by an arm mysteriously appearing from the left or right.

The station appears to be engaged in credibility-building with Kapostasy, as well. Each Monday, in a segment called "Monday's Child," viewers are treated to Kapostasy in her role as a Big Sister.

While being a Big Brother or Big Sister is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, one can't help but wonder at the news value of Kapostasy playing with modeling clay and smiling for the camera as she hugs her young friend.

Consider that the same Jan. 9 report devoted less time to a proposal to lay off state workers and the explanation of DNA evidence in the Wesley murder trial.

Not surprisingly, WNYT had the most chit-chat. Some informational, and some, well, banal.

This tidbit followed a Jan. 13 report on the world's oldest living identical twins:

"They also say,'Chew gum,' Bob," Kapostasy tells weatherman Bob Kovachick.

"But not on television," replies Kovachick with a grin.

Kapostasy titters as Kovachick launches into the weather.

But this is good news, folks, a product of post-Vietnam opinion polling that revealed the American public was getting bummed out by all that death and sadness.

WNYT certainly had the best froth of the week, a Jan. 11 barnburner on the life of Candy, a not-so-frisky feline residing at a local synagogue.

After discussing Candy's mousing ability with the rabbi, a stocky, trenchcoat-clad Bill Lambdin and camera crew followed Candy on her rounds for 60 glorious seconds. "Here's Candy going down the steps...." "Here's Candy under the desk...." "Here's Candy getting ready for a nap...."

Good news is not the only thing WNYT has going for it. Bob McNamara can really rip through scores and generates the excitement that the sports footage sometimes lacks. But he also tended to hype the station, identifying athletes as a "Channel 13 all-star," neglecting to mention their school.

WNYT has the best weatherman in the market. But we are not talking about Kovachick, who tends to be obnoxious and flip. "Who cares?" he asks, introducing the Jan. 13 report.

Norm Sebastian, who filled in for Kovachick on Jan. 9 and 10, logged the most specific and most correct reports all week.

He not only called the Jan. 12 ice storm, but explained who would get what weather, an important detail for commuters - and something the other weathermen failed to do.

Sebastian was also most adept at using the tools of the TV weatherman:

When you see the weatherman standing in front of a map, he's really standing before a blank wall. The map is inserted electronically. So you might catch the weatherman pointing at fronts hundreds of miles north or south. But not Sebastian.

Overall, WNYT's news footage was the most poorly edited. Too much of it was choppy and the most dramatic and telling footage was either left on the cutting room floor or WNYT crews were the last on the scene.

At times, the camera seemed to jump and stop and the narration often failed to keep pace with the pictures. Arms, legs and whole bodies were cropped out of frames, and the sound was often garbled or out of sequence.

Some of WNYT's footage seemed of questionable news merit. A videotape of a plane parked at Albany County Airport was used to illustrate a 30- second story on Mall Airways getting permission to fly again.

Thirty seconds doesn't sound like a long time to watch a plane sit on the ground, but in an industry where two minutes is in-depth reporting, it was.

A Jan. 12 package on Paul Palmer being sentenced in Rensselaer County included 15 to 20 seconds of footage of the door to the District Attorney's office. For this, we need video?

And in one of the silliest gaffes all week, WNYT featured a dramatic close- up Jan. 11 of a dour-faced President Reagan speaking as a woman's voice emanated from the television.

Now, that's entertainment.