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Former KDKA anchor Jennifer Antkowiak is changing channels

| Thursday, May 24, 2007

With no script, no prompter and in HD format, Jennifer Antkowiak will look and act a little different than she did on the six o'clock news.

"I'm used to doing my own hair and makeup, but with HDTV, I guess you'll see every freckle and every wrinkle, so someone else will be cleaning me up, God help her," the preternaturally cute Antkowiak said this week on the set of her new talk show "jennifer." Viewers in Pittsburgh know Antkowiak from her 14-plus years as an anchor on KDKA. The theme of "jennifer," which begins airing June 3 on WTAE, is "real life, real easy," Antkowiak said. She'll have a live studio audience, who will be encouraged to step up to the mic and participate.

Her show will be different from other talk shows, she said, because she'll be asking questions from a mom's perspective. Five kids give her a little cred in this area.

"For instance, we're going to have Zachary Quinto on, and his mom, to ask her if Hollywood has changed him," she said. Green Tree native Quinto is the villainous Sylar on NBC's hit show "Heroes."

And she's big on tips; the show's Ten-Minute Tips segment will give practical advice from experts on topics like beauty and finances, as well as ideas on how to cook dinner with a ton of rugrats.

It's the latest in the Antkowiak empire, which includes a Web site, magazine and upcoming book. She lives in Wilkins with her husband, Joe, who's stays at home with the kids.

The set was getting a few finishing touches Tuesday, for the first day of filming at WQED in Oakland. Perlora chairs and sofas were in place, the opening credits were playing over and over on two big video monitors, and the lower-case "j" was lit on one of the set walls. "I want this to feel comfortable," Antkowiak said, gesturing at the set, "because the show is all about making life easier."

Although the show will be aired only locally in the beginning, WTAE's parent company Hearst-Argyle has expressed interest in syndicating the show nationally.

Making that leap from local TV to national isn't always easy, however. Hugh Curnutt teaches the "TV and Society" course at the University of Pittsburgh. Television, even TV news, Curnutt said, usually creates personalities, not stars.

"Television has a certain familiarity to it, in the day-to-day lives of its viewers," Curnutt said. "News anchors inhabit a very specific type of celebrity or fame, and in a small market everyone knows them."

Viewers even call news anchors by their first names, Curnutt said.

"Sometimes news anchors have a hard time getting out of television, because of that familiarity -- they're ordinary, unlike movie stars, who seem extraordinary," he said.

He said the show could work if it stays focused on the target audience of working mothers.

"But I think any Pittsburgher could do this kind of show," he said. "I don't know if people will tune in just because they want to see (Antkowiak) again."

But Eric O'Brien knows firsthand how obsessed Pittsburghers can get with TV news personalities. O'Brien, a self-described radio and television enthusiast and Webmaster of the site Pittsburgh Radio & TV Online ( pbrtv.com ), said the devotion is sometimes so extreme that a week's vacation by a popular anchor can lead to mild panic among fans.

"Pittsburghers love consistency," he said. "My parents were that way. It was like (former WTAE co-anchors) Don Cannon and Paul Long were invited guests to our dinner table every night."

O'Brien, 30, of Ross, studied Music and Video Business at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, graduating in 1998. He's interested to see how Antkowiak's new show fares. "I'm not aware of how much star power she really had, but it seems she was popular," O'Brien said.

Antkowiak said response to the show has been "fantastic," even though she's been off the airwaves for more than a year. She said she hopes to create a community with practical, realistic advice and ideas for busy women.

"I want to make this about getting what you need to know in a half hour show," she said.


Where are they now•

Former Pittsburgh TV personalities who have moved on and moved up.

  • E.D. Hill, formerly Edye Tarbox, was an anchor on WPXI from 1987-89. She's now the anchor on Fox News Live. "My biggest regret is that I didn't work and live in Pittsburgh when I had my family, because it's such a nice, friendly place to live," said Hill. "It's just a terrific city to raise a family in."

    Incidentally, Hill switched to her married name after leaving Pittsburgh, and started using the initials E.D. as part of a family tradition.

    Hill said she probably spoke at every high school in the Greater Pittsburgh area at some point while she was here, and misses the Steelers and Penguins (although she admits her first love is the Dallas Cowboys). "I'm so envious of people who get to live in Pittsburgh during the Roethlisberger era," she said.

  • Susan Koeppen, consumer reporter for "The Early Show" on CBS, was on WTAE from 2000-04. Koeppen started as the "Call 4 Action" consumer reporter and was later a weekend anchor.

    Her husband's family lives in Pittsburgh (she and WTAE anchor Wendy Bell are married to brothers) and she still owns a home here. Even though the CBS gig was a "tremendous opportunity," Koeppen said, "I cried and cried when I realized I was going to be leaving Pittsburgh."

    Koeppen's recent reports for "Early Show" have looked at the best diets, tire-pressure safety, boating safety and summer safety for kids.

    She lives in New York, but came home to Pittsburgh on weekends for the first year she worked for CBS, Koeppen said.

    "I had the best of both worlds -- a great job at CBS and still got to go home to Pittsburgh every weekend," she said. "Even though I was born and raised in New York, when I say I'm going 'home,' I mean I'm going to Pittsburgh."

  • Dennis Bowman was a weatherman on WPXI from 1984-2000, before leaving for a job in Topeka. He returned to the area in 2003, and now freelances for KDKA, filling in when one of the meteorologists takes time off. But his main job is at Dennis Bowman Enterprises, where he and his constant companion, puppet Chester Drawers, entertain at schools, libraries and senior citizen centers. Bowaman is a trained ventriloquist.

    "We loved Pittsburgh, and I thought I could do the entertainment business best here," he said. TV news is different than when he started out, Bowman added; he said he'd like to see a return to TV reporters being more versatile, instead of having specialized beats. His "Dennis Bowman in Schools" site is www.dennisbowman.net .

  • Scott Baker was an anchor on WTAE from 1993-2006. He co-founded Breitbart.tv, the new video component of Breitbart.com. He likes the Web-based format because it offers some freedom from the structure of television news, Baker said. He was glad to be able to stay in Pittsburgh for his family.

    "This is an entirely new way to do news, and we're able to do it in Pittsburgh," Baker said. "I think it's going to be a good thing for Pittsburgh, and be successful."

  • Rehema Ellis was a reporter and anchor on KDKA from 1980-85. She moved on to WHDH in Boston, then became a correspondent for NBC Nightly News in 1993.

  • Jay Harris, now of ESPN, started on WPGH in 1997, and moved up to anchor in 1999. He spent 12 years with the station. Harris joined ESPN in 2003.

  • Mike Schneider was an anchor on WTAE from 1977-82. He's worked as an anchor on ABC's "Good Morning America," a correspondent on NBC, and was one of the first anchors on the Fox News Channel, joining the station in 1996. He's now an anchor on Bloomberg Television.

  • Eleanor Schano has the distinction of working for all three of Pittsburgh's network TV stations. The first female general assignment reporter on Pittsburgh TV, Schano hit the airwaves in 1958, and also worked for both KDKA and KQV radio stations. She authored the 2006 book "Riding the Airwaves" and hosts "LifeQuest," a half-hour show on WQED-TV.

  • West Virginia native Faith Daniels was at WTAE in the early 1980s, and was named anchor of the CBS Morning News in 1985. She moved to NBC as news anchor on the Today Show in 1990, and later to Dateline NBC in 1993, where she worked until 1995. She was last seen in the 2006 Robin Williams movie "Man of the Year."

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