EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a four-part series in which News TV Critic Alan Pergament analyzes the three local TV news channels after watching the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts for five weekdays starting Oct. 22. The series starts today with Channel 2 News.
There's little debate about which local TV news department in town has been the most creative and innovative over the last few years.
With its ESPN-inspired news "Rundown" on the right side of the screen, its incessant beating of the drum for its Web site and its emphasis on political controversy, Channel 2 is the innovative winner by a landslide.
It also is heavy in grating self-promotion -- often disguised as news. During the week of Oct. 22, the station used some news time at 6 and 11 p.m. daily to promote the county executive candidates debate it televised on Oct. 26 and its new morning program, "Your Today in Western New York."
The political coverage and self-promotion is part of the station's successful attempt to persuade viewers that the station is "On Your Side." The station has a lot of reporters and they are clearly comfortable with Channel 2's aggressive news style.
Many of the elements that have made WGRZ news a competitive No. 2 to local leader Channel 4 News may make news purists gag. A viewer's tolerance of co-anchor Maryalice Demler's apparent belief that many stories require her cheery seal of approval may determine if Channel 2 News is for them. A weeklong diet of cute and sweet Demlerisms would tax even someone with a sweet tooth.
Demler, co-anchor Scott Levin, weatherman Kevin O'Connell and sportscaster Ed Kilgore all give the appearance of one big happy family that can joke with each other about their high school mistakes, favorite sports teams and choice of words.
The news diet consists of fewer crime stories in a week than may be carried daily on rival stations. It wasn't until Friday that Channel 2 led its newscast with a crime story. Channel 2 prefers warm human interest stories and stories about political disputes, which often shed more heat than light on a subject. (In the interest of full disclosure it should be noted that Channel 2 and The News recently jointly commissioned some political polls and Channel 2 aired earlier this month a segment advancing a News series on Child Pornography.)
At 11 p.m. Monday, a lengthy report by Scott Brown (one of the station's best) on a Town of Amherst budget hearing primarily focused on charges of politics between Supervisor Satish Mohan and Board Member William Kindel over the filling of four positions that would cost taxpayers $380,000. Of course, there was a lot more going on in Amherst on that night, but Channel 2 most often is looking for political controversy.
At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Channel 2 was the only station to cover what Demler referred to as "a rather bizarre turn of events" involving Matteo Anello, the brother of Niagara Falls Mayor Vince Anello, at a Niagara Falls City Council meeting. It resulted in Matteo Anello being arrested after police said he touched a policeman's gun. The report included some audio provided by WLVL-AM.
By 11 p.m. Tuesday, reporter Josh Boose was on the story with "new video" obtained by "2 on Your Side" that was shot by a Niagara Falls High School class and juxtaposed with the radio audiotape. Boose's conclusion about the gun claim: "We can't tell."
But have no fear. Channel 2 wasn't going to let up on the confrontational story with political overtones. By 6 p.m. Wednesday, reporter Kristin Donnelly said that Mayor Anello "wouldn't comment for our story because he was afraid where this might go."
It was unclear if Donnelly was quoting him or making a judgment. Because we knew where this made-for-TV story was going -- to the 11 p.m. news, where Levin assured us the Niagara Falls students who shot the video were given "an unusual civics lesson they will never forget."
It was also a lesson in TV news: The importance of stories most notable for their novelty -- Mayor's Brother Gets Arrested -- can be exaggerated if there is good video or audio available.
It is no exaggeration to say that Channel 2 and all the local TV news departments spend a good deal of time belaboring the obvious, repeating stories and filling time to stretch a newscast to 30 minutes at 6 p.m. and to 35 minutes at 11 p.m.
>Heavy on weather
The 6 p.m. news often ends by 6:26 or 6:27 p.m. Channel 2 is the only station that still refreshingly ends its 6 p.m news with a "kicker" -- an amusing, out-of-town story -- and it owns the rights to the lottery drawing. The 35 minutes given to the 11 p.m. newscasts should come with an asterisk. The news really ends at about 11:28 p.m. on all three stations, except for a brief summary of the next day's weather that the meteorologists usually have given two or three times before.
Channel 2 is the most weather happy, with O'Connell showing up at the top of the newscast and three or four other times during the half-hour.
The rest of Channel 2's newscast is filled with as many as 15 to 20 stories, most of which are short news readers with sound bites. The stories that are deemed the most important and therefore become the longest -- 90 seconds to more than two minutes -- often have only a few seconds of real news but may play like a miniseries that will last for days.
During the week of Oct. 22, one of the big stories was the spread of the superbug MRSA. It made the top of Channel 2 at 6 and 11 p.m. Wednesday, was addressed third at 6 p.m. Thursday and was at the top of the news again at 11 p.m. Thursday because of a death in Brooklyn. The coverage was scary and reassuring at the same time. It was scary when it led the news and reassuring because viewers were told that MRSA can be treated.
Like all three stations, Channel 2 went large Tuesday with the return to the area of Patricia Parete, the police officer who was paralyzed after being shot months ago. It was the fifth story at 6 p.m. But by 11 p.m., it became the station's lead story even though there was little new information and police officials have said that privacy is important to Officer Parete.
>The Bills beat
By 11 p.m Wednesday, Channel 2's answer to Parete's privacy request was a lengthy report on the new van that is being specially fitted for her. It seemed as much a plug for the dealership that donated a portion of the cost as it did news.
But then again, TV's definition of news often depends on what it believes viewers are interested in, rather than what they need to know. When in doubt around here, that means extensive coverage of the Buffalo Bills, who obliged with two news stories -- they were considering switching a regular season game each year for five seasons to Toronto and rookie quarterback Trent Edwards officially was named the starter.
Sports reporter Adam Benigni was on top of those stories during the news portion of the newscasts, though he didn't advance them any.
"It is pretty much Marketing 101, isn't it Adam?" asked the ever helpful Demler on Monday.
On 6 and 11 p.m. Tuesday, Benigni reported on a pep rally attended by Bills players at a Toronto school that was highlighted by rookie Marshawn Lynch's creative use of his lengthy hair during a crowd-pleasing dance. In case you missed it during the news portion, Kilgore repeated Lynch's act during his sportscast.
The time could have been better used to cover something other than the Bills or the Buffalo Sabres. But the pro sports teams are emphasized on all three local sportscasts, even if the sound bites are old, dull or both.
The naming of Edwards as the starter and the Bills' interest in Toronto cried out for some strong opinions from Kilgore. But that's not what sports anchors do anymore.
Weather anchors like O'Connell do what they always have done -- act cheerful, even if rain or snow is on the horizon. The weathercaster who is the most accurate might be debatable, but O'Connell clearly is the best locally at delivering a sunny take on everything.
It's a lot easier to take from a weathercaster like O'Connell than it is from an anchor like Demler, who should let the news speak for itself.
Coming Tuesday: A look at Channel 4