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THE FIRST local news battle of the 1990s -- the February sweeps -- officially begins today.

With the changes during the past year, it promises to be one of the most interesting ratings periods in years.

The only thing that could have made it even more interesting is if the Robert Delano story had waited until a sweeps period to explode.

The Delano story has become a perfect made-for-TV event. In fact, it could be the best thing to happen to Channel 58.

Talk about bad timing for Mayor Griffin.

Ralph Nader's low-budget, community-minded station was given a spot on TCI's cable system (Channel 42) on Jan. 1, which expands the visibility of its coverage of Buffalo Common Council meetings.

Channel 58's camera coverage is amateurish. It also fails to identify Common Council members. But you can hear the words loud and clear -- and not just in quick sound bites.

On Tuesday night, Channel 58's fascinating, extended coverage highlighted the political damage done to Mayor Griffin by the Delano affair. In one dramatic moment, Councilman Archie Amos said the Delano criminal investigation could reach the mayor's office.

Channel 58 airs the council meetings as a public service, not to get ratings. But the continuing Delano saga should heighten interest in local news during the February ratings period, which already is noteworthy because of Irv Weinstein's reduced schedule at Channel 7.

It is clear from a month of practice in January that Eyewitness News is going to have a split personality.

Weinstein's solo act at 6 p.m. has a much different tone than the 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts anchored by Kathleen Leighton and Keith Radford, the Channel 7 anchor team of the '90s.

Before Irv went solo, the prevailing opinion was that his old habit of spicing up the news with tabloid-style headlines and intros was out of style for a changing Buffalo.

But in the past month, a 6 p.m. headline about a physician accused of impropriety proclaimed, "Dr. No-No."

Weinstein also couldn't resist comparing the wall that Delano put up around his Parks Department office with the Berlin Wall.

Vintage Irv.

That's the kind of style that might cause more sophisticated viewers to switch channels.

Though he is flying solo, Weinstein often has investigative reporter Tony Farina -- twice fired by Channel 2 -- on the set to explain his latest Delano story. Farina still is far better at getting information than he is at delivering it. But Weinstein's respect for Farina shines through.

As promised, Channel 7's 11 p.m. news includes a twice-weekly Weinstein commentary. For the feature, called "My Two Cents," Weinstein doesn't always pick the most compelling subjects. Last week, Irv told us he could care less about the Super Bowl. That isn't exactly an inspirational message in a town as crazy about football as Buffalo is.

Those commentaries are designed to show that Eyewitness News remains one big happy family despite Weinstein's departure from the 11 p.m. newscast and Rick Azar's exit as sports director.

Channel 7 has been heavily promoting Leighton and Radford, two relative newcomers whose hasty promotion remains a very big gamble.

Channel 4 was in position to overtake Channel 7 about a year ago, but has been shooting itself in the foot. Its first mistake was allowing weathercaster Don Paul to leave. Replacement Ted Textor had a tough act to follow. He is a decent guy, the kind Leo Durocher probably was talking about when he said, "Nice guys finish last."

Channel 4's second error was making the sleazy "A Current Affair" the lead-in for the 6 p.m. news. That kind of show runs counter to Channel 4's old classy image.

The image also is reeling from WIVB's greedy attitude since it was purchased by King World. Channel 4's desperation for a buck is highlighted by its use of paid programming in place of live sports events and popular entertainment programs.

WIVB's decision to pre-empt a "48 Hours" program about the changes in Eastern Europe in favor of old sitcoms shocked CBS News representatives. Rightly or wrongly, it reflects poorly on the news department.

To help its image, Channel 4 is running promotional spots on its news personalities. The ads are excellent, but they can't repair the considerable damage done so quickly to Channel 4's reputation by King World.

It was only a year ago that Don Postles arrived at Channel 2 with much fanfare, the latest savior of Channel 2 News. Postles forms a pleasing anchor team with Allison Rosati. Farina's departure hurts the station's news-gathering ability, but Money Matters reporter Mike Igo has been a find.

Rosati is such an appealing personality that she may get out-of-town offers when her contract expires in July. For now, she says: "Buffalo is a wonderful place, I've met some incredible people, and I enjoy the style of living. I hope I stay a lot longer. I do have aspirations to make it someday in a network position."

Complicating the picture is Rosati's long-distance romance with former Channel 7 reporter Anthony Moor, who is a San Francisco reporter now.

"Well, there's no proposal of marriage yet," Rosati said.

Though new owner Tak Communications obviously has severe budgetary problems of its own, it has coughed up the money to keep personalities such as Postles, Paul and Ed Kilgore happy.

If Rosati stays, she and Postles have the potential to be Buffalo's anchor team of the '90s.

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