ROB OWEN TV/Radio writer
Section: LIFE & LEISURE,  Page: D7

Date: Saturday, May 30, 1998

Like buzzards circling a wounded animal, local TV station executives are salivating at the prospect of a Chris Kapostasy-less WNYT, Ch. 13. Kapostasy's announcement Thursday that she's leaving WNYT June 12 to take a job with NBC News in New York leaves the local TV scene with a collective sense of ``now what?''

For years executives at rival local stations have muttered about how ``Kapostasy is the franchise'' at Channel 13. We'll soon find out if they're right.

Will heir apparent Benita Zahn get the chair next to Dague? Will the station bring in someone from another market? How will viewers react to whatever changes Channel 13 makes?

Alan Chartock, Channel 13 political commentator and executive director of WAMC-FM (90.3), said Kapostasy's departure is a ``terrible loss for Channel 13. It will take everything they have to make it right and they know it.

``In all the research I've seen or heard about, she's been the No. 1 card in the market. She tests higher and better than any other single anchor,'' Chartock said. ``The clear message is, they better not lose Ed (Dague). If they lose Ed, I think they're back to the drawing board.''

Channel 13 has been on the ratings rise in recent years, landing in the No. 1 spot with its 6 p.m. newscast twice in the past year. But it's a tight race.

WTEN, Ch. 10, has been making strides in the evening and Channel 6 won at 5 and 6 p.m. in the February sweeps.

``The good news out of this is that when she's doing `Dateline' and `NBC Nightly News' it will be like she's still part of the family at WNYT,'' said Channel 13 general manager Steve Baboulis, trying to put the best possible spin on the situation.

Bob Peterson, general manager of WTEN, Ch. 10, has his own spin: Viewers may look elsewhere.

``I think this will provide opportunities,'' Peterson said. ``Some people who watch WNYT newscasts because of Chris might be more amenable to checking out another newscast without her.''

The local TV news wars have been heating up in recent years as front-runner WRGB lost viewers and WNYT, WTEN and WXXA newscasts gained. This new wrinkle could alter the playing field.

``I don't see any quick, drastic changes,'' Peterson said. ``Most people don't watch a newscast for one person; it's the team. If they really dislike any one of them, they probably wouldn't be watching.''

Unlike just-departed WRGB, Ch. 6, anchor JoAnne Purtan, Kapostasy has been here for almost two decades. Kapostasy's pairing with Ed Dague would have entered its 11th year in September, an eternity in TV anchor partnerships.

Before working in TV, Kapostasy was a news anchor for several local radio stations, including WTRY-AM. Both she and Neal Shapiro, a Delmar native and the executive producer of ``Dateline,'' worked at WOKO-AM, but not at the same time.

Let's face it: Kapostasy is a class act. Respectable in the face of more sensational and less substantive TV news, Kapostasy stands out.

She doesn't over-emote (hello, Elisa Streeter), she doesn't look into the wrong camera and stumble over her questions on a regular basis (greetings, Liz Bishop). Kapostasy simply excelled at her job. That's why she's going to NBC News.

``We were looking for someone who had multiple skills, a strong commitment to journalism and was talented on the air,'' said Elena Nachmanoff, NBC News vice president for talent development, about Kapostasy. ``She really fit that bill.''

Nachmanoff said NBC's plan to expand ``Dateline'' to a fifth night next fall had nothing to do with her hiring.

Kapostasy's agent, Conrad Shadlen, wouldn't comment on how much she'll be paid by NBC, but it's sure to be more than the low six-figures she earns at WNYT. (``Nobody moves in order to take a loss,'' Shadlen said. ``No client of mine has ever done that.'')

Channel 13 will spend the summer conducting a search for Kapostasy's successor, considering applicants from inside and outside the station, Baboulis said.

In the coming months, much will depend upon whom Channel 13 chooses to replace Kapostasy and how viewers respond to that person. The November Nielsen ratings will give a good idea about the future of the Capital Region TV market.

Hartman's loss: The tragic death of comedic actor Phil Hartman affects not only his NBC sitcom ``NewsRadio,'' but ``The Simpsons'' and ``3rd Rock from the Sun,'' as well.

Hartman gave voice to several recurring ``Simpsons'' characters, including former B-movie idol Troy McClure and sleazy lawyer Lionel Hutz.

Fox released a statement Friday saying Hartman's last recording session for ``The Simpsons'' was April 22. He recorded the voice of Troy McClure for this fall's Halloween episode, ``Tree House of Horror IX.''

Hartman also appeared in the cliff-hanger season finale of ``3rd Rock'' as a jealous jilted boyfriend who kidnapped romantic rival Harry Solomon (French Stewart). Writing around Hartman's death on ``3rd Rock'' won't be too tough (his character could always just abandon Harry and disappear never to be seen on screen again), but replacing his distinctive voice on ``The Simpsons'' may prove impossible.

The future of the recently renewed ``NewsRadio'' is also in doubt, although no decisions have been made about whether or not the series will continue. For now it's still on NBC's fall schedule.