PITTSBURGH — Battle lines are being drawn over the latest fad to hit local television here--the innocuous, mild-mannered game of bingo.
The well-loved pastime of little old ladies and volunteer firemen is riding a new wave of popularity, and television producers are capitalizing on the public's age-old fascination with B-15s and G-59s.
Bingo programs recently have hit the air in several cities, including Los Angeles, Honolulu, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and West Palm Beach, Fla.
But the first major competition for the advertising dollars generated by bingo aficionados has occurred in Pittsburgh, where two network affiliates began broadcasting bingo shows in February.
According to the A. C. Nielsen Co., WTAE-TV's "$25,000 Bingo Mania" had a 9 rating and 40% of the audience in its 10 a.m. time period in May, compared to a rating of 5 and 22% of the audience for the show it replaced, "Divorce Court." WTAE is an ABC affiliate.
A rival bingo show on WPXI-TV, "$50,000 Jackpot Bingo," generated moderate gains, according to Bruno Graziano, general sales manager of the NBC affiliate, posting an 8 rating and 15 share weeknights at 7:30 p.m. The previous year, with "Sale of the Century" in that slot, the station received a 6 rating and 12 share.
Viewers at home can win cash prizes up to $25,000 in the morning show's game, $50,000 in the evening game.
"For the first time in a long time in television history, you have to make an effort to watch your television set," said Mark Barash, program director at WPXI.
Bingo cards are distributed by sponsors such as supermarkets, department stores and fast-food chains. Cards are color-coded and change every week, a ploy that forces viewers to patronize the businesses weekly and also helps the stations gauge the programs' popularity.
Advertisers like the shows because television bingo players don't miss commercials.
"You don't leave your set," Barash said, "because if you do, you may miss a number."
(A bingo TV show was airing in Los Angeles earlier this year on KSCI Channel 18, but presently is on hiatus until September, a station spokesman said.)
Around Manning it's called "Dave TV." That's the name for a local access cable channel where viewers can see everything from a local baseball game to chats with senior citizens.
The man behind the scenes is Dave Kusel, 29, a bachelor farmer who says he doesn't have anything better to do. He's credited with setting up one of the state's most ambitious local television stations. And people seem to love it.
Kusel and his helpers offer such fare as a 15-year high school class reunion, a centennial parade, a children's pig catch and a quiz show called "Guess Who" where pictures of old-timers in their younger days are shown and viewers are invited to match them with a name.
Manning owns its own cable system and 485 out of 689 households are hooked up.
"Other towns would like to have something like this, but they don't have the talent Dave's got," said Gerald Beck, manager of Manning Municipal Cable.
One of Kusel's favorite projects is a sort of oral history of the Manning area. He interviews elderly residents and broadcasts their reminiscences.
"Our communities are in trouble and I think this is one way of helping," Kusel says.
STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich.
Live, from City Hall, it's the Tuesday night City Council meeting--watched by more residents than most of the network TV shows that run opposite it in the same prime-time slot.
"It's public television in the truest sense," City Manager Richard Ives said of the program on the 2-year-old community cable TV channel, CHTV-5, which also produces more than 15 other local programs.
When the council goes into session at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays, every other week, viewership for such NBC and CBS programs as "The A-Team" and "Simon & Simon" plummets in this town of 118,000, although ABC is holding its own, a city spokeswoman said.
"There have been a number of instances where residents have left their TV sets in the middle of a televised City Council meeting and driven to City Hall to voice their opinion on an issue," Mayor Jean DiReeze Gush said.
"I don't know of another community in the nation where so many citizens are aware of what their city council is doing," Ives said.