Pittsburgh Sports Report
July 2006

All Steelers All The Time
Giving The People What They Want
By John Mehno

If 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 sneeze.

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 reporters.

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 online.

The competition is fierce and the Steelers are gold with viewers.

When 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 one team."

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 issue?

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: johnmehno@lycos.com

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