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Broadcast Views : Why Television Newsrooms Will Closely Watch CBS' 'WIOU'

October 21, 1990|DANIEL CERONE | Times Staff Writer

When CBS announced plans to air a one-hour dramatic series about a struggling broadcast news station, CBS affiliate stations took note. When they learned that the new show "WIOU" would reveal behind-the-camera drama and parody real-life news people, some affiliates grew nervous.

And when the affiliates were told that "WIOU," debuting Wednesday night, would lead into their local nighttime newscasts, a few were downright alarmed.

"The concern a number of affiliates have is the motivation of the reporters on 'WIOU,' " said Johnathan Rodgers, president of CBS Television Stations Division.

"One reporter wants to cover stories to become a star, one wants to cover stories for money, one wants to cover stories to go to bed with someone. That's not the motivation of our reporters, and that's not what we're about."

"Some affiliates are concerned that we will trivialize what they do, which is local news," said former NBC president Grant Tinker, whose GTG Entertainment is co-producing "WIOU."

"They're afraid that we'll take viewers backstage and expose the trick, if you will. It got to the point that I was asked to get up and talk to them at one of their affiliate meetings. I assured them that was not our intention. I spent my life in this business and I'm not about to trash it."

"WIOU," pegged by many critics as a potential hit, does flash pretty solid news credentials. Tinker used the newsroom as a backdrop in his long-running CBS series "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant." And the creators of "WIOU," Kathryn Pratt and John Eisendrath, worked together on the news staff of WBBM-TV, the CBS-owned station in Chicago.

"Is this show going to hurt the credibility of journalism?" said Pratt, 38, a health reporter at WBBM. "Well, 'St. Elsewhere' didn't hurt doctors and 'Hill St. Blues' didn't hurt cops. In fact, it made them more human and accessible. We think this will do the same for TV journalists."

Pratt and Eisendrath first visited Los Angeles with their series idea in 1987, about the same time the hit film "Broadcast News" was in theaters. "What we learned then was that a lot of people had the same idea," Eisendrath, 33, said.

Still, they quit their jobs, moved west and started collaborating on TV scripts. Their first job came in 1988, on Tinker's dramatic high-school series "TV 101." When that show folded after a season, Pratt and Eisendrath polished up their "WIOU" pitch.

At first, CBS hesitated. There was a good reason why a TV newsroom drama did not emerge after "Broadcast News." Eisendrath and Pratt explained that "WIOU" isn't the normal network franchise show where doctors, cops or lawyers get involved in life or death situations.

"The feeling at the networks is that reporters are detached observers, so how dramatic can that be?" she said.

The two experienced journalists shattered that myth. "Imagine having to ask people how they feel now that their parents or brother or sister or loved one died in a fire," said Eisendrath, who wrote and produced commentaries for venerable WBBM anchor Walter Jacobsen.

"There are moments of high drama and the macabre," Eisendrath said. "A guy killing his friend because the vertical hold on his TV set didn't work during a football game, or someone killing his wife because he didn't like the way she made pork chops. . . . Those are things a journalist sees that the public doesn't."

Eisendrath and Pratt also pointed out the personal, and frequently amusing, drama in the newsroom--reporters jockeying for key positions, the dogged reliance on ratings, sexual intimidation and the issue of style versus substance.

"The very first news package I ever did on air," Pratt said, "I sweated and worked writing for hours. I waited for the news director's comments after it aired, and finally he came up to me. The only thing he said was, 'Did you ever think about wearing bangs?' . . . You enter the field of journalism thinking you're going to be a reporter, and you're really an entertainer."

Right now, the CBS affiliates seem to be taking "WIOU" in stride and just hope the show draws strong ratings.

The Staff at 'WIOU'

"WIOU" ushers viewers into the inner sanctum of WNDY, a fictional big-city TV news affiliate plagued by dismal ratings and sagging revenues (thus, the moniker WIOU ).

John Shea heads the cast as the station's new maverick news director. He squares off with one-time love Helen Shaver, a solid reporter long overdue for an anchor position, and Mariette Hartley, a no-nonsense executive producer who wanted Shea's job.

The cast also includes Dick Van Patten as a jolly, dippy weather reporter with a geriatric following, Harris Yulin as a fading million-dollar network anchor put out to pasture and Kate McNeil as a sultry, sexy news kitten pining for an anchor spot.

Rounding out the newsroom is earthy field producer Jayne Brook, silky-smooth reporter Phil Morris, Robin Gammell as the station's statistical-minded general manager and well-meaning intern Wallace Langham.

"WIOU" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on CBS. The premiere episode could be postponed until Oct. 31 if the World Series goes to a seventh game.

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