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TV REVIEW : 2 Channel 10 Documentaries Are a Step Up

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rarely does local television reach the level of quality that KGTV (Channel 10) achieves not once, but twice tonight.

Quick and cheap are the usual trademarks of features and documentaries produced by the San Diego TV news departments. Slap together a few interviews. Maybe toss in a little file footage. Arrange for a talking head to tape a few segues and get the thing on the air.

Channel 10’s “Countdown to the Cup,” a look at the business side of the America’s Cup, airs at 9 p.m., and “Save My Pet,” a feature about pet care, follows at 9:30. While neither will rattle the cages of prize committees, both prove that San Diego television news can produce something more than shallow, infomercial-style documentaries.

In “Countdown to the Cup,” reporter-co-producer Mark Matthews takes a skeptical, journalist’s look at the organization running the America’s Cup defense, moving behind the scenes. It is a far cry from the boosting tone that accompanies most local television news stories on the America’s Cup.

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Although only a portion of the show was available for preview at press time, it is clear that “Countdown to the Cup” will raise the hackles of everyone who thinks the America’s Cup organizers should be treated like royalty and that the America’s Cup event is going to be San Diego’s great benefactor.

In the segment that was available, Matthews and co-producer Larry Edwards examine the operations of the America’s Cup Organizing Committee, which had racked up $6 million in debt by last May. Instead of simply listening to rhetoric and stonewalling press release statements from the committee, Matthews pulled up the budget the ACOC submitted to the Port Commission when it hit that body up for $8 million in public funds earlier this year.

Although little of the information is startling or new, Matthews raises issues that are not discussed very often, such as the propriety of the high administrative costs of the ACOC, including the $91,000 budgeted for former Channel 39 anchorman Dennis Morgigno to run the Cup’s media center and the $100,000 budgeted for former Channel 39 news director Tom Mitchell to handle public relations.

If the ACOC is set up to put on a defense of the America’s Cup and to help the defenders, Matthews asks, “Why did they spend more on parties and promotions then they did on helping the defenders?”

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This is the way news documentaries are supposed to operate, examining subjects of social concern and delving beneath the surface. The special even quotes Port Commissioner Lynn Schenk mentioning the one basic reality that seems to be missing in most America’s Cup hoopla: After talking to people in the community, she said, “It just didn’t seem to me . . . that the interest in the community was at the same level as the Super Bowl or even a Chargers game.”

The rest of the special is supposed to deal with other aspects of the ACOC, including the background of the group’s relationship with the Cup and the contrast between reality and the group’s budget projections. If Matthews is able to maintain the same questioning tone throughout the program, it could be an excellent package.

Even if the majority of information has been discussed in one form or another before, television news has a unique ability to draw the big picture for the audience, to use graphics and visual elements to make a news story compelling and interesting. Far too often, the power of television news is lost in superficial reporting. “Countdown to the Cup” appears poised to use the medium to its full advantage, presenting a thought-provoking story.

“Save My Pet” succeeds on a completely different level. While “Countdown to the Cup” reveals the medium’s ability to examine issues and raise questions, “Save My Pet” is a shiny example of television’s power to evoke emotions, to pull on the heartstrings of the audience.

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Hosted by Carol LeBeau, the half-hour “Save My Pet” spends a night at the Emergency Animal Clinic of San Diego, where the veterinarians and their aides treat a wide variety of pet ailments.

Technically, “Save My Pet” is more in the traditional style of a San Diego television news documentary. It doesn’t probe or ask tough questions, or even bother to offer viewers any background about the men and women it captures in action, the people who work in this emergency-care clinic. It completely ignores broad pet care issues, such as understaffing of clinics and the availability and costs of quality care (beyond acknowledging that pet care is expensive).

LeBeau’s overly dramatic reporting style doesn’t help much either, but this is a show that can’t miss. Anyone who sighs at the sight of a cute puppy will have a tough time resisting it.

Using a “48 Hours” approach, LeBeau and producer Wayne Brown track the care of Tiffy, a cat with something stuck in its throat; Rusty, a rambunctious, injury-prone dog; Scarlet, a pregnant cat, and a few other traumatized pets.

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There is no real artistry to the presentation, but the show manages to hit all the right notes, creating the type of program that parents can watch with their children. Together, they’ll oooh and ahhh at the puppies and the little kitties looking like wet rats. And maybe they’ll shed a tear when the doctor is forced to tell a distraught family that it will have to put its dog to sleep. Brown presents the event in touching fashion, using only the sound from the emotional scene while presenting visual images of the cold, lonely hallway of the hospital. Anyone who cried during “Bambi” better have two tissues handy.

“Save My Pet” is the type of warm and fuzzy feature that television can do more dramatically than other mediums. The program works simply because pet lovers will enjoy it, and any program that can draw genuine emotion out of an audience should be commended. Like “Countdown to the Cup,” it allows the drama of the story to speak for itself.

The mere fact that both programs don’t come across as promotions for particular causes or individual companies makes them worthy of praise, considering the usual rah-rah tone of most locally-produced documentaries.

Of course, Channel 10 can’t resist following the programs with a typically self-serving commercial for its 11 p.m. newscast, which will include “reaction to Mark Matthews’ report.” But that doesn’t diminish the fact that Channel 10 has put together an interesting and enjoyable hour of local programming.

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