Springer packed up his cast of misfits and headed East; Oprah's revving her caravan of feel-goodery to bolt West. So Tribune Broadcasting has sent in the clowns to keep Chicago in the national TV spotlight.
The pregnant prostitutes have exited, and it’s time to meet the child beauty-pageant contestants. Accompanied by a gentle slide-guitar instrumental, miniaturized divas in sequined dresses prance onto the small stage in Studio 2 at WGN-TV’s headquarters near Addison and Western Avenues, preening as they perform a series of carefully choreographed bows, waves and winks.
Compared with the sexcapades of the glassy-eyed bad girls from the earlier segment of this pilot taping of Tribune Broadcasting’s new TV talk fest Big Willie (four test shows, intended for national syndication, aired the week of July 12, and the Trib reported July 28 the show will launch in national syndication in September 2011), the initial dialogue is relatively tame between host Bill Cunningham, a right-wing radio personality from Cincinnati, and the Stepford-ish moms. But the pleasantries disintegrate when Cunningham launches this torpedo: “Isn’t part of the act in a preteen beauty pageant to look as if you’re sexually available?”
“Absolutely not!” snaps Kimberly, mother of a five-year-old named Skyler.
After a few minutes of verbal sparring, Cunningham asks the moms if their little ones can come out in their bathing suits. The mothers refuse.
But just offstage, a little girl appears in her one-piece. Her mother snatches her and storms into the hallway as a cameraman follows. A few days later, the parents file suit against the program, claiming they were victims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent misrepresentation.
The following weekend, the same WGN-TV studios (former home to talk pioneer The Phil Donahue Show and kids’ classic The Bozo Show) host a taping of another new tabloid talk launch, Florida shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s eponymous program (no air date announced as of press time). It proves even more outrageous: Think “midget” strippers flashing their tits and humping audience members’ legs, and Bubba encouraging a burly man from the audience to hold up a little woman by the neck and crow, “I told you, bitch!”
So much for the innocent days when happy children packed these studios for a chance to aim for the buckets in the Grand Prize Game. But what if the bozos behind Tribune’s tabloid shows are Chicago’s last, best hope for a talk resurgence? In a city with more empty soundstages than potential shows to fill them, at a time when Oprah’s counting down her days to departure and potential stars such as her protégé Nate Berkus are setting up shop in New York, that just might be the reality.
It’s an upsetting reality to some. “I’m not saying we should do Masterpiece Theatre in Chicago, but it doesn’t have to be bear baiting,” laments former Bozo the Clown Joey D’Auria. “That stuff’s appalling.”
Although no chairs fly through the air, both Tribune shows are reminiscent of “conflict talk” trailblazer The Jerry Springer Show. This is no surprise; the new shows’ producer, Richard Dominick, was the hand behind Springer for 18 years. Springer and the spin-off hosted by his former head security guard, Steve Wilkos, once dominated the niche, doing shows multiple days a week at the NBC Tower studios. Whatever one thinks of the genre, the shows were responsible for at least 150 jobs and attracted countless tourists intrigued by episode titles such as “I Cut Off My Manhood.” But last year, Connecticut lured both productions with a 30 percent tax credit, the same figure Illinois offers to film and TV productions—with the exception of talk shows.
Why were chat fests exempted from the Illinois Film Tax Credit, which was enacted in 2004? “The tax credit was [created] to lure new production,” says Kathy Posner, a former publicist for Springer. “You didn’t have to lure anybody [in talk shows] because the shows were already here.” The law has indeed been successful in attracting massive Hollywood film productions, including The Dark Knight and Transformers 3, as well as episodic television such as the Chicago-set cop show Ride-Along, coming to Fox in January.
But, as we all know, Oprah is leaving in 2011 to focus on the fledgling Oprah Winfrey Network, a partnership with Discovery Communications. And while Don Halcombe, director of communications for Harpo Studios, which produces The Oprah Winfrey Show, insists the West Loop facility will host a full slate of productions, there still will be a huge void in the local TV landscape.
“With Oprah leaving and those other talk shows leaving town, there’s not as much activity as there was. But things are cyclical,” says Neal Sabin, executive vice president of Weigel Broadcasting, the parent of WCIU-Channel 26 (The U). “It just means there are studios open here and opportunities when the right business plan comes up. I don’t think it’s doom and gloom; it’s just not as good as it was.”
To date, the confirmed programming for the January 2011 launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network includes vehicles for gal-pals like Gayle King, as well as shows built around exploring the creativity and awesomeness of Oprah’s famous friends, such as Will.i.am and Simon Cowell. The only show confirmed to include some Chicago-based filming is In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman, which sounds like a modern-day Dr. Ruth Show, with the homegrown sex therapist doling out advice and vibrator etiquette to couples around the country.
We already know The Nate Berkus Show, co-produced by Harpo, which will air locally on WMAQ-TV starting in September, will not be shot here. But Halcombe points out many local Harpo employees are involved with Berkus’s show, including people in marketing, development and post-production. (In addition, the company is getting deeper into editing and other creative services with the recent formation of Harpo Creative Works, an offshoot that hopes to develop promo campaigns for TV properties beyond the Oprah universe.) And while there’s no denying the decision to base Berkus in New York bruised the city’s ego, Halcombe says it’s possible the show could come to Chicago once space and resources are available after Oprah’s final-season victory lap.
Still, considering our recent losses, one would imagine those vested in the success of the local TV industry are busy trying to get their legislators to rework the Illinois Film Tax Credit law to include talk shows, right? Not according to Illinois Film Office managing director Betsy Steinberg. “I don’t know anybody who is actively working on that,” she says.
Michael Niederman, chair of the television department at Columbia College, argues that it’s something state and industry leaders should focus on. “It’s time for the universe to pick up its head and say, Okay…we have good people in this city, what [shows] can come here?” he says.
So how, exactly, does the city benefit economically from talk shows, anyway? In the case of Oprah, we can consider the livelihoods of Harpo’s 450 employees. And according to the University of Illinois-Springfield’s public-policy magazine Illinois Issues, the show also brings an estimated $15 million in tourist dollars to Chicago every year, assuming the 30,000 annual out-of-town audience members spend at least $500 per person on hotels, restaurants, shopping and cab fare.
But there are other benefits that the local TV industry—hell, the entire city—has been reaping for 25 years. “There is the sense that when you come to Chicago, this is the place that the most successful entertainment entrepreneur uses as her base,” says Walter Podrazik, co-author of Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television (Syracuse University Press, $39.95). “There’s a prestige by association that’s hard to quantify.”
What Chicago has always had going for it as a TV town—starting back in 1949 when Studs Terkel first hosted his variety show Studs’ Place—was creativity. Shows needed to innovate because of smaller budgets compared with shows coming from the coasts. With Donahue and, later, AM Chicago, the local show that launched Oprah in 1984, and even Jenny Jones, which taped in WMAQ’s studios from 1991 to 2003, our shows “developed a strong sense of issues” because Chicago was not an “easy ‘grab a celebrity’ location,” Podrazik explains.
But the new Tribune talk shows are not innovative and—unless you’re dating a little-person stripper—there’s very little to chew on in terms of issues. And while Cunningham and Bubba are obviously courting Springer’s base, both lack the good-natured impartiality and “Can you believe this is happening?” ringmaster persona Springer perfected.These hosts operate more like ringleaders, pushing guests and audience members to perform increasingly over-the-top antics and, according to the suit, ambush tactics.
Tribune Broadcasting may deserve kudos for developing original talk programming—even if it’s not very original. But considering Oprah’s ratings—the New York Post recently reported that her show had dropped to its lowest numbers ever, getting beat repeatedly by the gavel of Judge Judy—the real question might be: Has the era of big daytime talk shows passed, and with it, Chicago’s chance at owning a vital TV category?
Both Oprah and Springer have suffered viewership declines. According to Nielsen, Oprah had more than 8 million viewers during the 2005–2006 season compared with 6.3 million in 2009–2010. Springer’s numbers dropped from 2.5 million viewers to 1.9 million over the same period. Despite those figures, Columbia College’s Niederman says talk shows are far from dead; rather, in today’s highly fragmented TV landscape, they’ve just become more niche-oriented.
“There are more talk shows than ever,” he says. “The big difference is there are very few that touch broad demographics anymore. Mass audiences are going away. So the idea that there could potentially be another Oprah—the world just isn’t in that place anymore.”
In this niche-honed market, the likes of Weigel Broadcasting, the privately held company with a history of serving ethnic markets starting with the launch of Soul Train in the late-’60s, has a shot at success if its creativity exceeds its small budgets. For the past year, Weigel has been experimenting with a local show on WCIU called You and Me This Morning hosted by Jeanne Sparrow. “The economics have gotten really tough,” says Weigel’s Sabin. “Our advertising doesn’t sell for as much as it used to, because our numbers are lower, because you have 200 choices now. But we have a luxury in that we’re not a big corporate entity with big budgets that need to be met.”
Weigel also shot a more traditional celebrity-interview talk show with WGN-AM radio personality Gary Meier that aired as specials this month on WCIU. And let’s not forget: WCIU is the Chicago home of national production Judge Mathis, entering its 12th season and taped at NBC Tower.
“You can frame it as, Woe is us, we’re losing Oprah, but people are working on the next generation of stuff,” Sabin says. “It might not employ as many people, and it may be more local than national. But you never know.”
One station accustomed to making do with less is WTTW. Once regarded as a model for local programming by public stations, Channel 11 is feeling the loss of more than $1 million in state funding. But even with significant layoffs that have affected programming quality, it finds a way to air quality programs such as Check, Please!, with offshoots in San Francisco and Miami, and Rick Bayless’s nationally distributed Mexico: One Plate at a Time, plus a full slate of locally produced documentaries and the four-days-a-week news magazine Chicago Tonight.
WTTW is also investing in a show concept it hopes will tap the city’s rich comedy roots. Two test episodes of The Chicago Stand-up Project, created with comedy club Zanies, aired this month (catch it Thursday 29 at 8:30pm). Sort of a local celebrity, comedian version of Dancing with the Stars, the show features the likes of Olympic hero Shani Davis training—and then performing—as stand-up comedians. Dan Soles, WTTW’s head of programming, also confirms there have been discussions with Roger Ebert about a potential reboot of the nationally syndicated Sneak Previews, which got its start on that station in the 1970s.
Other local outlets are also trying out new ideas as opposed to paying for syndicated national content. As Vocalo’s Robert Feder reported last week, WLS-TV will fill the Oprah time slot with a live, local morning show from its State Street studios. “This is one of those rare opportunities where we had the time available to do something on our own,” station president Emily Barr tells TOC. Since Oprah was able to use a local morning show on Channel 7 as a springboard to syndication, similar hopes are bound to be pinned on the new show. “I don’t want to start speculating whether this show could be national in scope,” Barr says. “We want to produce a high-quality local program that taps into the Chicago sensibility,” she adds. “If, down the road, we happen to find something that’s really great and want to syndicate it, then that’s terrific. But that’s not the goal. We’re not in any way, shape or form trying to replicate what Oprah had.”
While our status as a talk show capital is in jeopardy, Chicago may step back into TV via other genres. Nonfiction programming—including historical documentaries and reality shows—qualify for the state’s tax credit. Among the out-of-town companies that have taken advantage are 20 West Productions, a creator of broadcast and cable TV content that opened here in 2008. The company has had success with The Squeeze, a show billed as a real-life version of HBO’s The Wire that follows the Cook County Sheriff’s Criminal Investigation Unit and runs on MSNBC (a marathon airs Sunday 1).
According to Melissa Cutlip, 20 West’s vice president of development, the company is dedicated to mining Chicago for cutting-edge reality programming—something she laments is in short supply here. “The fact that there aren’t a lot of shows set in Chicago has nothing to do with the city not having enough stories to tell. The cable networks like setting shows in Chicago because, frankly, that’s where a lot of their viewers live—in the middle of the country,” she says, noting that executives she’s met with at HGTV, Food Network and Bravo have said they’re eager to hear more Chicago-based pitches.
Pie Town, an L.A.-based production company, came to town in 2005 to capture Chicago’s great sense of place (along with the state’s tax benefits) for HGTV’s home-improvement shows Design on a Dime and Designed to Sell. But in 2009, Pie Town closed its doors after the two programs stopped production. According to a former employee, network brass felt the shows had run their course.
Probably the best-known producer of nonfiction TV in the city is Towers Productions, founded in 1989. Towers has created series and documentaries for the History Channel, National Geographic and the Weather Channel, among many others. Its shows, including American Justice, once dominated A&E; but today, that network is better known for fast-paced, vérité fare along the lines of Dog the Bounty Hunter.
Alberto Mendez, a former employee at Towers who has since moved to L.A., in part because he felt work here was drying up, believes Chicago production companies are playing catch-up when it comes to today’s reality programming. “You have too many [in Chicago] with that old-school thinking, with those clips shows and documentaries, which no one is really buying anymore because they’re so expensive to make,” he says. “If you didn’t get in when it first started, it’s very hard to land those [newer] reality-type gigs.”
Towers does appear motivated to cultivate a more contemporary reality hit. It’s handling production for season two of High School Confidential, a WEtv series following the real lives of American teenagers, which will be filmed in Chicago and aired in 2012. Mike Schmiedeler, managing director, says a casting call for a local Real Housewives–type program (not affiliated with Bravo) resulted in a pilot for Plastic Royalty, a very Bravo-sounding reality show about the father-daughter owners of the Liposuction and Cosmetic Surgery Institute, which will air locally on WMAQ.
“They are dynamite characters,” Schmiedeler says. “He’s the Lipo King and she’s the Queen of Lips.”
While that concept sounds promising, the fact is, so far, there has not been a breakout reality show on a national level featuring Chicago-based characters, although Chicago chefs have fared well on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. Another exception is Future Food on Discovery Communication’s Planet Green—a food-science program that Homaro Cantu, the chef and molecular gastronomist from Moto, and his pastry chef Ben Roche, pitched to the network with the help of Canadian production company Galafilm. But for more Chicago stories to be developed and sold to national networks, Cutlip believes we need to cultivate more industry talent.
What about recruiting from the influx of TV-industry professionals who will reenter the market when The Oprah Winfrey Show ends its run? “Talk-show experience does not necessarily resonate,” says Cutlip, pointing out that a 44-minute show with a story arc is a very different animal. “Networks want to see a résumé for a show runner [person responsible for the operations of a TV series] before they approve a show. But until the [local] industry grows, there aren’t enough people with that résumé,” she says. “We can change that by hustling and bringing more business into the city. You can have all the talented editors and writers, but if there’s not a show to work on, they’ll be on the first plane to New York or L.A.”