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Broadcast Views : Why TV Newsrooms Will Watch New CBS 'WIOU' Very Closely

October 21, 1990|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When CBS announced plans to air a dramatic series about a struggling broadcast news station, the network's affiliates took note. When they learned that the show "WIOU" would reveal behind-the-camera drama and par-ody real-life news people, some affiliilis grew nervous.

But when the affiliates learned "WIOU," debuting Wednesday, would lead into their newscasts, a few were downright alarmed.

"The concern a number of affiliates have is the motivation of the reporters on 'WIOU,' " said Johnathan Rodgers, , esident 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."

"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."

"It got to the point that I was asked to 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" does flash pretty solid news credentials. Tinker used the newsroom as a backdrop in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant." And the creators of "WIOU," Kathryn Pratt and John Eisendrath, worked 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, who was 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 time of the hit film "Broadcast News." "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 because, Eisendrath and Pratt said, "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 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.

"For me, I ended up being in a puddle over many of the things I reported," Pratt said. "But that can be what makes a reporter special-sensitivity. We want to show those little moments, when there's a little child in the oncology ward who wants a Cabbage Patch doll but the Cabbage Patch dolls are all sold out, and we all end up bawling at the end."

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

"Those of us in our business can really cast stones," CBS' Rodgers said. "We make fun of lawyers and doctors and cops on TV, and it's OK. The question is, 'Can we really make fun of ourselves?' In truth, there's probably not much about 'WIOU' that hasn't at some point happened in our newsrooms. But I'm sure the audiences are capable of separating fiction from fact."

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

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. and Phil Morris as a silky-smooth reporter.

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