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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Romance' on the Rocks

THE SWEEPS: Part of a series examining the TV industry's periodic ratings rituals.

February 22, 1988|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Last week was a big week for romance reporter John Beard.

Beard, who co-anchors the 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts on KNBC-TV Channel 4, reported to viewers five consecutive evenings on a subject that all of Los Angeles was waiting to hear about.

"Romance in the Office."

Beard's series was news? On the contrary. Presented during the station's 11 p.m. newscasts, it was the classic ratings sweeps dollop, empty and dingy, titillatingly promoted in fantasy scenes played by professional actors, and deployed specifically to capture higher ratings in a highly competitive time slot.

If "Romance in the Office" was KNBC's strategy to build Beard's credibility as a journalist, then something strange is in the water at Burbank. "This was an idea some people at the station came up with and asked me to do--and I did it," Beard said Friday between newscasts.

Office romance was a sizzling topic for ratings sweeps months long before a recent Newsweek spread on the subject. A spokesman for a large corporation here reports getting requests from several out-of-town stations to "supply couples" to be used in news series about office romances. "I guess it's ratings sweeps time," said the TV-wise corporate representative, who asked not to be identified.

I guess.

"There are times and situations when getting involved in an office romance is a bad idea," Beard began, leading off his Tuesday segment. Yes, very profound.

Beard introduced attorney William Waldo, an employment and labor law specialist who may have had worthwhile information to convey, but didn't do so in the brief sound bites Beard chose to air. Waldo said few employers feel they have the right to "go into the bedroom" of employees to get "intimate details" of their personal relationships. "But sometimes those personal relationships will interfere at work."

And sometimes, apparently, they won't interfere. It's all clear now.

Beard cited Mary Cunningham--forced from her executive job at Bendix after rumors of an alleged affair with her then-boss and present husband William Agee--as an example of boss-employee romances that cause problems. But Cunningham and Agee have continually denied having an affair at Bendix.

Next on screen came a former IBM employee. "Her lover worked for a competing company," Beard said. "Rather than be demoted, she quit and sued, winning $300,000 in damages."

Say what? It's still an office romance if the two romancers work at different companies? "It doesn't have to be involved with people you work with all the time to have that relationship affect your job," Beard explained Friday. This was getting newsier all the time.

Next came George Di Pretoro and Lorine Tallerino, who began dating while security guards at Hughes Helicopter (now known as McDonnell Douglas Helicopter). "They married," Beard said. "Then he was fired, she was demoted."

However, a copy of a suit flashed on the screen bore the names of Tallerino and another female plaintiff Beard didn't mention. "She (the unnamed plaintiff) wasn't part of our story," he said Friday. But . . . oh, well.

Beard's Wednesday edition of office romances revealed "the ugly side of men and women working together," specifically the case of former St. Vincent's Medical Center worker Katherine Witowski, who claimed she was labeled a "troublemaker" there for complaining that a male colleague sexually harassed her.

"Sexual advances and references made work miserable," said Beard, repeating her charges as if they were fact. "She complained and he was fired. Then she was fired."

Added Witowski at the end of the segment: "I would love to have someone tell me why this happened."

Viewers may have agreed. But they wouldn't hear St. Vincent's version of what happened and why. The hospital's side was omitted.

Nancy Miron, St. Vincent's director of marketing communications, said she received a call at home from St. Vincent's about 6:30 the night that the Witowski report aired, saying that Beard wanted to speak to her. She said that he was on the air when she called back and couldn't talk to her until shortly after 7 p.m.

"He told me they were doing a story about Katherine Witowski and asked me if we had any comment. Ordinarily I would have called our attorneys and had them check it out so that we could make a statement, but at that time of night there wasn't time. So I told him we wouldn't be able to comment. When I watched the story that night, I was shocked. It reminded me of 'Broadcast News.' At no time did I hear the word alleged. "

Asked why he belatedly called the hospital, Beard replied: "We didn't find out about it (the story) until that day. That was very late." But not too late to give Witowski an opportunity to be interviewed on tape in two different settings.

On Friday, hospital president Vincent Guinan released a statement terming "not true" Witowki's charges that she was sexually harassed at St. Vincent's and that "her complaints resulted in her termination."

Onward.

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