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HILL, SIFF ARE LEAVING CH. 7 NEWS; VALENTINE FROM 'THAT '70S SHOW'

It was about six months ago that Channel 7 General Manager Bill Ransom said he worried about the day that his only African-American anchor, Jean Hill, would walk into his office and say that she was leaving. That moment has arrived.

Hill, who has been the co-anchor of "Eyewitness News This Morning," for about two years and a weekend anchor for nine years before that, leaves at the end of the month for a job in private industry.

"He (Ransom) did try to convince me to stay," said Hill. "I felt complimented. His reaction was 'Give me an opportunity to talk you out of it.' "

Starting in March, Hill will become a vice president in corporate communications for M & T Bank. She made it clear that she isn't leaving because of any of the behind-the-scenes drama at Channel 7, which has been hit by morale problems amid layoffs.

"It isn't because anything at Channel 7 made me want to leave but because of the opportunity I have at M & T," said Hill. "The timing is right. There are just as many years in front of me as there are behind me. When you are in your late 30s, you ask what are you going to do with the rest of your career. I chose to take on another challenge."

Hill, who came to Channel 7 from a Fox program, "Beyond Tomorrow," 11 years ago, concedes that there are problems at Channel 7, but she believes the problems are industry-wide.

"There are fewer people and each individual is taking on more responsibilities," said Hill. "There are a lot of people grumbling. I can only say I was not unhappy. I've had a positive experience here."

Ransom's worries about Hill's departure were mentioned in a story that discussed the difficulties local general managers have had in hiring minority anchors and reporters.

At the time, Hill was the only African-American on-air personality on staff. Since then, the station has added two minorities -- sportscaster Joe Major and weathercaster Tracy Humphrey.

But for far too long, Hill was the only on-air minority at Channel 7, a station that is owned by a minority broadcasting company, Granite. Hill dismisses suggestions that minority reporters and anchors are difficult to find and to convince to come to Buffalo, though she concedes she hasn't been part of the hiring procedure.

"It is troubling," Hill said of the lack of on-air minorities. "I don't think there is a shortage out there of well-qualified minority candidates who would come to this market. You can always find minorities in our industry."

There certainly is a shortage of on-air minority anchors in prime weekday anchor roles in Western New York. Hill was the only one at Channel 7, and she was on at a time of lower visibility. Channel 2 had a minority co-anchor, Victoria Hong, at 6 and 11 p.m. weekdays, but she has been moved to a 10 p.m. news program that airs on a low-rated Pax affiliate, WPXJ.

"There was no opportunity for me to be a weekday anchor unless Susan (Banks) or Kathleen (Leighton) left," said Hill. "I went as far as I could there."

"You still have people in the industry nationwide afraid to put minorities in certain positions because they think people will reject them," said Hill. "I think if you do a good job, people will watch. Certain decision-makers believe they are taking a risk with minorities. I don't think that's the case. Our television audience is open to a person who does a good job and isn't just looking for someone who looks like themselves."

When she leaves the broadcasting business, Hill will have some adjusting to do. Having worked weekends and early mornings, she hasn't had a normal 9-to-5 life.

"I need time," Hill said, "to readjust my sleeping pattern."

Joining Hill out the Church Street door after the February sweeps is reporter Andrew Siff.

Siff, who has done quality work for five years, is heading to a 24-hour cable news operation in New York City called NY-1.

"I wanted to go home," said the 32-year-old Siff, a New York native. "I've spent 10 years in fun and interesting cities like Buffalo, and this a great break for me."

Siff's most recent big story was an investigative report about a group of South Towns teenagers who were arrested for stealing money out of soft drink vending machines.

"He's a very dedicated, hard-working contemporary investigative reporter of our time," said Ransom, who brought Siff to Channel 7 from Granite's Syracuse station. By contemporary, Ransom means that Siff has been able to do investigations in the limited time available to him.

Like Hill, Siff said his leaving is unrelated to the difficulties at Channel 7.

"My departure has nothing to do with the recent turmoil at Channel 7," said Siff. "I think it is industry-wide and almost at every station."

The job of filling the vacancies left by Hill and Siff will be in the hands of Robert Yuna, who becomes the station's new news director in March. Yuna arrives from Charleston, W.V., where he was the news director of newscasts carried on ABC and Fox affiliates.

"That '70s Show" (8 tonight, Channel 29), the co-creation of Buffalo native Mark Brazill, has quietly become one of Fox's most reliable series. Ratings-wise and quality-wise.

It scores again tonight with a Valentine Day's episode, "Donna's Panties," in which Eric (Topher Grace) jokingly pulls down his girlfriend's shorts revealing her panties during a backyard basketball game. He compounds the error by thinking that Donna (Laura Prepon) is over it just because she says so. That leads to a comical heart-to-heart between Eric and his father Red in which dad tries to explain that women don't always mean what they say. Starting with the b-ball game, this episode is a slam dunk.

Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 4

On the other hand, tonight's "Frasier" (9 p.m., Channel 7), is off its game. A parody of the Gywneth Paltrow movie, "Sliding Doors," the episode tries to get humor out of the idea that one little occurrence can shape your destiny. In this case, Frasier bumps into a pretty female at his favorite coffee shop and then obsessively pursues her to the point that she is completely turned off. You will be, too. This episode is long on gimmicks and short on laughs.

Rating: 2 1/2 stars

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