One year later: ‘Windy City’ boss likes what she sees
Chicago and the rest of the civilized world were still coming to grips with Life After Oprah (or at least life after The Oprah Winfrey Show) when Windy City Live debuted one year ago this week.
More than half the population of the city (median age 31.5) never knew a time when Oprah wasn’t on ABC 7 at 9am weekdays — an hour she’d dominated in the Nielsens for more than 27 years. Replacing her on the market’s top-rated station wouldn’t be easy.
Hosted by Val Warner and Ryan Chiaverini, who’d emerged from a months-long talent search, Windy City Live appeared in many ways to be a throwback to the kind of programs local stations produced decades earlier — including A.M. Chicago, which begat Oprah. Boasting a big budget, a big set and a big studio audience, it was the biggest local show launched here since WGN bagged Bozo’s Circus.
No one expected Windy City Live to pull Oprah-sized ratings out of the box. It needed only to be marginally profitable to survive. Nevertheless it consistently has won its time period in overall households and appears headed for a victory in the key adult demographics during May. Not bad for a program some critics damned with faint praise and others savaged when it premiered.
On the eve of the show’s first anniversary special Wednesday, executive producer Marlaine Selip reflected on the challenges of creating a national caliber local production from scratch and previewed what’s ahead for Windy City Live:
Q. How are you planning to mark the first anniversary?
A. We will be looking back at some of our favorite moments on the show. They will include celebs and newsmakers, heartwarming moments spent with people making a difference in the community. We love to have fun on WCL, and we’ll showcase that as well. We’ll also be showing a behind-the-scenes look at WCL — what’s it like for the producers, talent and director to produce an hour of live TV each morning. From the time they arrive — first in, director at 5:30am — through morning meetings, rehearsals, makeup, the show and then the post mortem, we’ll show what goes into putting on a live one-hour show daily. Lastly, we want to find out how well our co-hosts, Val and Ryan, really know each other. We will be testing that knowledge, but there will be consequences for wrong answers. Let me just say one or both of our talent could get wet.
Q. Now that Windy City Live has been on for a year, how is the show different from what you envisioned it would be?
A. It’s growing into the show we envisioned. Everything takes time. We wanted to create a family of contributors and regulars, and that is working out very nicely. We wanted to showcase a town that knows it’s the greatest city in America but would never brag about it. We want to be the show that makes everyone proud of everything this community has to offer.
Q. How would you describe the chemistry between Val and Ryan?
A. They get along very well. They’re like brother and sister, but siblings that get along. They each had their own gigs where they controlled their own content. They are now paired as a team. Chemistry doesn’t happen overnight. You start by trusting each other and getting to know each other’s strengths and playing to them. They genuinely like each other. They both love to have fun, but both have big hearts.
Q. How long did it take before you felt comfortable with the format?
A. I’d say four to six months to settle in, but it wasn’t the format as much as getting to know the rhythm of the show. We have so many regulars and contributors you have to find a comfort level with each of them. The hosts also have to get used to each other — know when to hold back and let the other lead. That takes time with every new production. We aren’t doing one-topic one-hour, we have multiple topics and we do a 20-minute host chat that includes the news of the day and pop culture and more. It’s not easy to juggle all those pieces, and not everything works, so you have to experiment and start seeing things that resonate with the audience. We are also in a big studio with an audience. Believe it or not, it takes time to be comfortable in all the environments we’ve created in that space.
Q. You've made interesting use of producers as on-air performers. Whom do you consider "break-out personalities" among them?
A. Ji Suk Yi was hired to be a news/social media producer, and now she’s on the show every day. She’s a wonderful complement to the hosts. She’s smart, funny and she juggles and manages over 52,000 Facebook fans and 10,000 Twitter fans. I definitely credit her with building that strong base along with Jessie Kalin, who manages Twitter. Jessie’s not on air. Hank Mendheim is our senior producer and comes on to talk pop culture. He’s irreverent, sarcastic and very funny. He’s not afraid to say what you might be thinking. David Plummer was the executive producer of At the Movies, and he’s paired with Paige Wiser as our Paige and Plummer movie reviewers. David is a smart, funny everyman who loves movies and has an insight one can only get working with the likes of Siskel, Ebert and Roeper. Last minute we needed an announcer for the Know Your Neighbors Game, and producer Dan Barbossa delivered a very funny take on what is usually an art form that goes unnoticed. Jared Hoffa is our editor, and he has a passion for all things electronic. He’s our App Man. Lastly, we just added our line producer, Matt Knutson, on a new segment we call Food Fight. Matt has produced food shows and is a Beard Award winner for doing just that. We’ve paired him with Ji to give us their take on the best food in different categories.
I’m delighted that all of them have been so well received by our audience. They all share one thing: They love what they do and they aren’t afraid to work hard. They all put in very long hours. We all do. It’s the source of great joy to me that they are doing so well. I think the audience has embraced them because they are just like our audience. They’re one of them.
Q. What changes can we expect as the show continues to evolve?
A. It’s taken a year, but it’s getting easier to book our show now. We were an unknown, and celebs and others were not sure how they’d be treated at WCL. They’ve realized that our audience is thrilled to see them and we like to have fun. We strive everyday to get better and to serve the community that has embraced us. We are very grateful for their support. We will definitely continue to showcase local stories and people that make a difference.
Q. What's been your best audience prize so far?
A. We did a weeklong give-away of European vacations on the Know Your Neighbors Game, and we’ve given away two automobiles. In total we’ve given away over $500,000 in audience giveaways. Cindy Patrasso, our supervising producer, has done a terrific job of lining these up.
Q. Any chance of Windy City Live going national?
A. I can’t answer that. From a production point of view, we look like a national show. We feature national guests as well as local, but our main focus is on all things Chicago and our viewing area. I come from national shows. I’m as proud of this show as I am of those.
Q. Think Oprah will ever come on the show?
A. I hope so. We won’t stop trying. It would be a full-circle moment for her to come back into the studio from which she was launched. She loves to give back and does more generously than almost anyone out there. It would mean a great deal to us if she would come on WCL. And I know the audience would love to see her do just that!