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Spot check: One night in the lives of your latenight local newscasts (Mon., Nov. 10)

Consider this the equivalent of random drug testing.

Because life is just too short -- and the brain can only take so much -- we're going to be much more selective in our looks at the weekday late night newscasts on Fox4, NBC5, WFAA8 and CBS11.

Unclebarky.com's new "Spot Check" feature will be activated throughout the year, not just during the traditional ratings "sweeps" months of November, February (March next year because of the big digital conversion) and May.

Station management types are always saying that they throw everything into every newscast on a year-round basis. That's not entirely true, of course, but it does provide an opening to evaluate them when they might least expect it.

Ergo, These "Spot Checks" mostly will continue the old practice of watching all four of the aforementioned newscasts in their entirety. But they could include newscasts at earlier hours. And sometimes just one newscast will be spotlighted. Whatever feels right, with a tentative plan to do this at least twice a month -- or maybe more.

Big breaking news events will dictate some of this, but we'll also pick out comparatively "ordinary" days in which stations are challenged to either come up with more of their own enterprise reporting -- or simply punt to a pre-canned stories from their network or an affiliated station.

We'll begin with Monday, Nov. 10th, the first week in a long time without an ongoing presidential campaign. It was, of course, a very rainy night, so all four stations began on that note and then milked it as much as possible.

Fox4 reporters Becky Oliver and Dionne Anglin

FOX4 (featured 9 p.m. newscast)

ANCHORS -- Steve Eagar, Heather Hays (news), Dan Henry (weather), Mike Doocy (sports)
NEWS REPORTERS WITH "BYLINES" DURING THIS NEWSCAST -- Becky Oliver, Dionne Anglin, James Rose, Sophia Reza

Splish splash -- Weatherman Dan Henry set the stage with the usual up-close looks at angry-looking maps before anchor Steve Eagar turned it over to "Street Squad" reporter James Rose with this disclaimer: "Our coverage gets a little complicated because we can't raise our masts on top of our 'live' trucks and it gets difficult to cover it."

The station then presented live video shot through a moving vehicle's rain-blurred windshield before Rose popped in via cell phone from a gas station off of I-30 in Fort Worth.

A few motorists had pulled over during heavy rain, but Rose otherwise had a tough time making this sound like much more than a much-needed downpour.

"It hasn't rained in a while . . . It just makes it all the more sinister when it gets dark outside. Some people are playing it safe safe, Steve," he concluded.

In other words, Noah's Ark remained docked.

Some friendly advice to Eagar about his anchor suits -- On Monday night he wore a brown, vested, wide-striped ensemble that made WFAA8 sports anchor Dale Hansen look like Yves St. Laurent but still fell well short of 10 p.m. co-anchor Baron James' usual circus attire.

Really wide stripes are hot right now. But cool it because . . . hey, guys, these are going to look like Nehru or leisure suits in pretty short order. And five or so years from now, you're going to want to destroy any evidence that you wore 'em. That's why my bright orange, corduroy sport coat from the 1970s remains on call for Halloween wear only.

Good work -- Reporter Dionne Anglin had what proved to be the night's heart-warmer, about an eight-year-old autistic boy in Grand Prairie whose faithful "service dog," Spot, ran off two weeks earlier while chasing a work van down the street.

This story had a very happy, touching ending Tuesday when the dog was found and returned to his home. You can watch Anglin's followup report here.

Juicy steaks, clinking wine glasses, incriminating chateau-y accordion music, etc. -- Veteran investigator Becky Oliver weighed in as only she can with a lengthy, shout-it-out expose of government officials wasting your tax dollars on fine dining, drinking and plush accommodations.

CBS11 gumshoe Bennett Cunningham (more on him later) has performed this task numerous times, with Michael Sullivan of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility riding shotgun.

Oliver also relied on Sullivan's indignation, and of course he delivered.

"That's disgusting," he said of the expense accounts filed by some top executives of the Tarrant Regional Water District. "It's the height of immoral. These people have no shame."

Oliver ran into resistance, of course. "It appears," she told viewers, "that someone didn't want us poking around." In fact, she said, the Water District tried to soak Fox4 for $24,000 in return for complete spending records that would take a year to compile, Oliver said.

She and Sullivan instead zoomed in on 14 "top executives," including Water District head Jim Oliver, whom she confronted in a parking lot while he was planning to work out at an area gym.

"How ya doin'?" Becky asked him before boring in. The other Oliver of course looked peeved, but furnished a money shot by telling his inquisitor, "We have checks and balances on all our spending."

"You do?!" she shot back.

Accompanied by the usual damning sound effects and closeups of fine food and drink, Oliver reeled off several heavy-duty expense accounts, including a $1,059.99 tab at a Houston steakhouse that included an inflated tip.

These reports can be valuable, but they've also become almost a dime a dozen during ratings sweeps periods. Oliver's patented, over-the-top indignation is still an irritant. She's been to this particular end zone many times in her long career here. And much of her work has been praised. But for once, how about calmly dropping the ball instead of doing a Terrell Owens-ish TD celebration throughout. We know, we know. You're an avenging angel. No need to come off like a she-devil.

On Monday night, Oliver used Sullivan's words to set up her big in-studio finish. Government officials don't like "some crazy reporter" looking into their questionable expense accounts, he told her. To which Oliver then added, "Call me crazy but most of us have to account for what we spend for work."

Enough said.

NBC5 reporters Randy McIlwain and Susy Solis

NBC5 10 P.M. Newscast

ANCHORS -- Mike Snyder, Jane McGarry (news), David Finfrock (weather), Newy Scruggs (sports)
REPORTERS WITH "BYLINES" DURING THIS NEWSCAST -- Scott Gordon, Omar Villafranca, Ellen Goldberg, Kevin Cokely, Randy McIlwain, Susy Solis, Matt Barrie

Splish splash -- Weatherman David Finfrock primed the pump before anchor Jane McGarry segued to reporter Scott Gordon riding along in Stormtracker H3. Yes, they actually call it that.

The veteran Night Ranger could only be heard not seen. Here's his take: "In Fort Worth, the skies opened up and the water just kept coming. In Hulen, just south of I-30, a few cars stalled in the high water. Nobody was hurt."

Reporter Omar Villafranca then showed up live outdoors in Carrollton, looking ready to take on water in a hooded rain suit. He briefly noted that it rained where he is, too. McGarry then cued a still picture from a viewer of "rain pouring down." You don't even have to add any dry humor.

Good work -- Street vet Randy McIlwain stood live in the elements on a Plano golf course, wearing a wet weather windbreaker and a cute, light gray homburg for his story on attempts by homeowners to protect their properties with at least 20-foot high net fences.

An aggrieved resident whose home and property have been bombarded with errant golf balls boiled it all down during a public hearing on the matter.

"When they hit your home, they sound like a gunshot," he said. "And if they hit your head, you're dead."

Plano officials of course rejected the homeowners' proposal. That's par for the course, but not McIlwain's fault. As almost always, he had a good little story and holed it out.

Smells like sweeps dung -- NBC5 was up to its tired old tricks with stories on a "sexy suggestion from a North Texas pastor" and a "Beer Crisis" gripping North Texas.

Reporter Susy Solis, who joined the station a year ago, interviewed jaunty Ed Young, pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine. To ease stress during tough economic times, he's challenged married parishioners to have sex daily for seven straight days. Or as Solis put it, "Young says couples need to turn whining into whoopee." Yes, she actually said that.

An older male member of the congregation and a younger guy condensed the issue in typical NBC5 fashion -- sound bites lasting perhaps two seconds.

"Well, there's more to marriage than sex," said one.

"Yeah, I'm takin' the challenge," said the other.

It was then reporter Meredith Land's turn to tell viewers about a "worldwide hops shortage" that has driven up the price of beer at the Flying Saucer brew pub in Fort Worth among others.

A couple of pot-bellied elbow-benders vowed to continue drinking anyway. "It's just gonna damage the pocket book a little bit more," one reasoned before swigging some suds from his hand-held vessel. Put it on NBC5's tab.

WFAA8 anchor John McCaa and reporter Shelly Slater

WFAA8 10 p.m. news

ANCHORS -- John McCaa, Gloria Campos (news), Pete Delkus (weather), Dale Hansen (sports)
NEWS REPORTERS WITH "BYLINES" DURING THIS NEWSCAST -- Chris Hawes, Steve Stoler, Jason Whitely, Shelly Slater, Ted Madden

Splish splash -- Co-anchor Gloria Campos told viewers that HD Chopper 8 had captured a "wall cloud" in progress and weatherman Pete Delkus presided over his many-colored maps before reporter Chris Hawes materialized live in Fort Worth holding an umbrella in what had become a drizzle.

She told viewers of "water shooting out of a manhole" and of drivers scooping water out of their vehicles. Reporter Steve Stoler then took over in Frisco, where he was outfitted in a hooded rain suit. And there you have it.

Money for nothing and your chicks for free -- Campos continued with WFAA8's nightly "Stretching Your Dollar" segment, this time telling viewers about four ways to stretch a gallon of now relatively cheap gas. Namely, slow down, use cruise control, avoid idling and stop "aggressive driving." The 30-day savings were estimated at $393.90, bringing the grand total through Monday's newscast to $5,719.90 a month.

Don't know if I believe that.

Spending John McCaa's money -- on a woman's wardrobe -- Co-anchor John McCaa, a very snappy on-air dresser, doesn't wear women's clothing off-camera -- far as we know. But to hammer home the ease with which crooks can commit identity theft, WFAA8 gave his credit credit card to reporter Shelly Slater, who used it for a shopping spree.

"We're of different ages, different races, even different sexes," McCaa told viewers. "You'd think that she would get stopped using my credit card."

But no. Slater first bought some stuff at Wal-Mart. No questions. Then an "entirely new fall wardrobe" at Target. A color printer at Office Max, a $300 mixer from Macy's and "house decor" at Ross.

"Again", she said, "no one questioned the name John McCaa."

McCaa said ruefully at story's end, "Shelly assures me that she is returning all of the items that she bought on my credit card."

"Uh huh," Campos jabbed.

The kicker: Slater's purchases were all legal because she had McCaa's consent to use his credit card, he said.

Why couldn't she have used some of McCaa's money to frivolously buy a big supply of limited edition unclebarky.com T-shirts, which actually exist and at least would make a great gag gift for the annual WFAA8 Christmas party. Or any station's for that matter.

Good Work -- Sports reporter Ted Madden had a fun piece on Arlington-based dude Craig Marquis, who made it to the Final 9 of the World Series of Poker. ESPN televised the pre-taped final on Tuesday night after first paying each of the nine finalists winnings of $900,000 apiece.

For the record, Marquis ended up finishing last in that field. But he still won $900 grand.

CBS11 reporters Bennett Cunningham and Ginger Allen

CBS11 10 p.m. newscast

ANCHORS -- Doug Dunbar, Karen Borta, Larry Mowry (weather), Babe Laufenberg (sports)
REPORTERS WITH "BYLINES" DURING THIS NEWSCAST -- Seema Mathur, Carol Cavazos, Stephanie Lucero, Bennett Cunningham, Bud Gillett, Ginger Allen

Splish splash -- Weatherman Larry Mowry set the stage up top before reporters Seema Mathur, Carol Cavazos and, later in the newscast, Stephanie Lucero, braved what elements there were.

A male motorist showed Cavazos how his vehicle became flooded before he ingeniously scooped the water out. She wore a nifty CBS baseball cap for the proceedings. Lucero opted for a dark blue station rainsuit, complete with hood. Nice.

Your tax dollars being pissed away (the sequel) -- Investigator Bennett Cunningham, back in D-FW after an extended leave, had an extended report that became a bit dated during his absence.

But hey, this is the "sweeps," so he dove back into "a dirty little secret in North Texas. Some cities and counties are spending your money on cars and SUVs that suck up your tax dollars and leave a carbon footprint that's choking the environment. And the problem starts at the top."

Way to undersell it.

Basically, the mayors of Dallas, Arlington and Fort Worth are driving or being driven in city-authorized vehicles that get lousy gas mileage, Cunningham reported.

He began with Dallas mayor Tom Leppert, whose chariot is a city-issued, gas-guzzling 2006 Ford Expedition. CBS11 cameras caught the thing idling for "nearly 25 minutes" while, as Cunningham put it, Leppert "gets a new hair-do."

Haircut is much more like it. Leppert was shown having his locks trimmed in what very much looked like a small community barber shop, not some pricey North Dallas clip joint. And he should be commended for that, not ridiculed. Whoever's driving him could have shut the motor off, though.

Leppert briefly told Cunningham that he's told by the city what vehicle to use, and that hopefully it soon will be a cost-efficient hybrid.

Arlington mayor Bob Cluck drives his own Cadillac Escalade on city business, and said he won't go to a Ford hybrid because "this is General Motors country." Fort Worth mayor Mike Moncrief also is ferried in something of a gas guzzler and the Tarrant County Sheriff office's fleet of squad cars has "one of the highest carbon footprints in town," Cunningham said.

He didn't hammer his story home the way Oliver almost always does. But in the end, this didn't amount to a whole lot.

Yes, city officials and law enforcement agencies should make a better effort to comply with TXDot recommendations to use cleaner-burning vehicles that get better gas mileage. That would set a good example. In fact, at the end of his story, Cunningham was back in the studio telling viewers, "Last month the Fort Worth mayor got rid of that Cadillac Escalade for a newer model. This one is a hybrid, which gets 20 miles to the gallon."

In the sweeps, though, you never put the good news up top. You save it until after selling another semi-apocalypse. Because as any reporter knows all too well, that's what makes "good television."

Poor Ginger -- Early morning co-anchor Ginger Allen is still billed as a member of "The Investigators," whose only other CBS11 member is Cunningham. But in reality all she gets to do is introduce and narrate the latest cosmetic fix aimed at sought-after female viewers.

On Monday night, Allen talked about "laser lipo," also known as "lunchtime lipo" because it's quick, easy and probably costly, although the report didn't mention that last part.

CBS11 showed before-and-after pictures of a patient's stomach after she underwent the procedure. The doctor who performed it not surprisingly touted this "excellent procedure for skin tightening."

Somebody really should tighten the screws on this stuff. Allen has a been a capable gumshoe in the past. Either give her a break or let one of the male anchors do this stuff. But the odds on that are longer than the downtrodden Dallas Mavericks going unbeaten for the rest of the season. Or even for the next two weeks.