The lengthy tribute KDKA-TV paid on its newscasts to Patti Burns after her untimely death certainly was fitting given the former anchorwoman’s enormous popularity. It also was highly hypocritical. Yet no one fleetingly familiar with the cannibalistic climate of TV newsrooms should be surprised by the station’s two-faced treatment of its one-time star. One of Pittsburgh’s most recognizable faces, Burns, 49, succumbed to cancer at her Shadyside home.
In the 20 minutes or so spent summarizing Burns’ career, KDKA lovingly lauded her longevity at the station. Touted that tuning in to Patti during her various stints at noon, 6 and 11 p.m. anchor had been a Pittsburgh tradition. The station virtually ignored how the queen of KDKA Country, after 23 years at the station, was unceremoniously cut loose in 1997.
The Mt. Lebanon native joined the station in 1974 after a brief stint as a TV reporter in Dallas. Within two years, she was anchoring the noon news with her father, legendary local newscaster Bill Burns. The nation’s only father-daughter news team continued until the elder Burns retired in 1988. He died in 1997, about nine months after Patti and KDKA went their separate ways.
The parting was not particularly pleasant. Friction between Burns and station management developed during the mid-1990s. During contract negotiations in 1996, the station decided it no longer wanted the veteran anchor on a full-time basis. “They told me, ‘You’re linked to tradition and longevity, and we’re not going in that direction,'” Burns told Pittsburghs’ newspapers in December of 1996.
The station offered to extend her contract, but only on a part-time basis. At the time, Burns said she would have had to accept a pay cut of more than 50 percent and a substantially reduced on-air presence. When an agreement on a new pact could not be reached, KDKA sent Burns a notice terminating her employment, effective the date of her contract’s expiration – Jan. 31, 1997.
What happened to Burns was not uncommon. The TV news business frequently eats its own. The industry digests middle-aged anchors at the height of their earning power, anchors who may not be popular enough among the younger audiences coveted by stations and their advertisers.
But what happened next was not as common. Two weeks before Burns was scheduled to depart, news director Sue McInerny abruptly told her the next day’s broadcast would be her last. That did not exactly leave Burns a whole lot of time to prepare farewell remarks to her loyal viewers. Burns said back then that McInerny told her that KDKA “had to get on with the transition.” At the time, McInerny said, “Since Burns chose to move on, there was no reason to make her work until the very last day of her contract.”
Her commercial broadcast career effectively over, Burns moved on. She founded her own media production company, performed charitable work, and contributed to public television station WQED’s “On Q” news magazine. In the spring of 2001, when she was diagnosed with the disease that would kill her.
The tribute provided Burns by the hypocritical station that spurned her was tantamount to a royal funeral. Pity it took her death for the queen of KDKA Country to finally return from exile.