All Steelers All The
Giving The People What They Want
By John Mehno
Hines Ward sneezes, it is probably:
a. An allergic reaction.
b. A symptom of a cold.
c. The lead story on all local newscasts.
The likely answer is c., complete with team coverage that dispatches
the sports guy to Heinz Field, sends someone else to get man in
the street reaction and has the medical team explaining why we
It's an exaggeration, sure, but how much of one? After all,
one local station put aside news of a murder to lead its newscast
with a story about the release of the Steelers' highlights DVD.
Western Pennsylvania loves the Steelers, and the local TV stations
love high ratings. Their formula to hook viewers is Steelers stories.
This is based mainly on circumstantial evidence, since none
of the three local network affiliates is willing to say much about
its policies regarding Steelers coverage. The three news directors
were not available to comment for this story. But on-air personnel,
some of whom roll their eyes at the soft Steelers-related stories
that are considered news, say it's as simple as it looks. Lead
with the Steelers whenever possible.
The decisions are driven in part by constant market research.
Stations survey viewers to gauge their interest on various topics.
Sports in general doesn't do that well. That's why sports news
is consigned to a few non-prime minutes. The sports segments within
the news have been shrinking, and stations employ fewer sports
Research shows that hard-core sports fans get what they need
from cable channels and the Internet. So the local stations do
a few cursory headlines and highlights on the fly.
That's how they handle the sports. The Steelers? They're much
bigger than sports. "The Steelers own Pittsburgh," says Lou Prato,
a State College-based former news director and consultant. "Not
the Pirates, not the Penguins, not Pitt, not anything else. Forty
years ago, it was the Pirates. Now it's the Steelers."
Prato worked at WPXI (then WIIC) from 1966-69. He went on to
run newsrooms in Detroit, Chicago and Washington D.C., then opened
a news consulting firm that numbered WTAE-TV among its clients.
He continues to take an interest in the business, although he's
happy to be on the sidelines these days.
"The news business has completely changed," he says.
Newspapers, which used to consider TV competition, now partner
with broadcasters to create marketing synergy. Technology makes
delivering stories easier. There's more news, with each station
airing shows in early morning, noon, early evening and 11 p.m.
WPXI and KDKA have auxiliary outlets (PCNC and UPN19, respectively)
for more news-related programming. Instant updates are available
The competition is fierce and the Steelers are gold with viewers.
quarterback Ben Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle on June
12, all three stations suspended regular programming to offer
wall-to-wall coverage. No doubt Roethlisberger's accident was
big news; in the immediate aftermath, it appeared to be a life-or-death
issue. But the stations stayed on the air for two hours with 30
seconds worth of hard information.
Not only do the Steelers score high in viewer interest, but
matters pertaining to Roethliesberger tend to go off the charts.
That's why viewers were treated to tape of Roethlisberger's offseason
trip to Switzerland, where he was seen petting dogs and slicing
a large wheel of cheese.
The Pittsburgh Xplosion of the reborn American Basketball Association
struggled to draw fans in their inaugural season and failed to
muster much media coverage. They played to crowds of a few hundred
at Mellon Arena and Pitt's Petersen Events Center. Those associated
with the Xplosion must have been envious when they saw how much
TV coverage the Steelers' offseason basketball games generated.
"It's ridiculous," grumbles one sportscaster. "But that's what
management wants." Sometimes the stories are worthy of the time.
KDKA's Bob Pompeani did a solid feature on Bam Morris, the former
Steelers running back who spent time in federal prison on drug
charges and dreams of an NFL comeback.
Occasionally they're as fluffy as someone manufacturing a new
black and gold t-shirt or another forgettable novelty song. When
the Steelers make the playoffs, Feinberg's in the Strip District
becomes a de facto news set, where Steelers-related merchandise
is inevitably "flying off the shelves."
No doubt KDKA leads the way in volume of Steelers-related coverage
and that's to be expected. Because CBS has the rights to AFC games,
most of the Steelers schedule is on KDKA. KDKA also has more time
to fill since it's the only station that does a full hour of news
beginning at 4.
Shortly after news director John Verrilli arrived in town from
New York City in 2004, he told Post-Gazette TV critic Rob Owen,
"I have never been in a town where the town is so obsessed with
To that end, KDKA last season delivered a different Steeler
each week for in-studio interviews. The station refuses to disclose
the financial arrangements for the appearances, but know this:
Professional athletes are not going to endure inconvenience unless
it's worth their effort.
Ratings sweeps bring out extra efforts. Stations aim for one-on-one
sitdowns with key players. In recent years, those have been conducted
by female anchors. WTAE's Sally Wiggin's anchor cool melts with
Steelers. When Roethlisberger was a rookie, she had an exclusive
with the quarterback and asked if there was a special girl in
his life. Given the difference in their ages, it felt like Roethlisberger
was being grilled by the mother of one of his friends.
Maintaining a good relationship with the Steelers while still
covering the news is a tightrope. WTAE last year promoted a story
that promised pictures of a glassy-eyed Roethlisberger hugging
three women and wearing a t-shirt that said, "Drink Like a Champion
Today." The photos were on the website deadspin.com. The story
never made the air, despite the promotion. Just reconsidered news
judgment or a fear of running afoul of the Steelers over a marginal
In the week before his accident, Roethlisberger shut down a
routine post-practice question-and-answer session because he saw
WPXI was present. Roethlisberger didn't elaborate on whatever
issue he had with the station, but he was believed to be upset
over WPXI airing tape of his house. Being shut out by the quarterback
is risky business for any station.
Prato believes the obsessive Steelers coverage isn't as bad
as it seems.
"They're not sacrificing a hard news story to do the Steelers,
because they weren't covering the hard news story anyway," he
says. "What's news in Pittsburgh these days? Another investigation
of Cyril Wecht?"
Who cares about a septuagenarian bureaucrat when there's trash
talk flying between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati? KDKA even sent
news reporter John Shumway to Bill Cowher's news conference last
year, apparently to prod the coach without having the sports guys
held accountable for his irritation..
"What's the big story? The Steelers," Prato says. "If I were
doing local news, I'd lead with the Steelers."
The interest they generate, measured in ratings, is nothing
to sneeze at.
John Mehno has been covering Pittsburgh
sports for 31 years. He is reachable at: email@example.com