Friday, May 20, 2005

Bye, Bye, Mr. American Pie: Sirott to leave WTTW?

Rob Feder has reported on the recent departure of Randy King, WTTW’s EVP of Television [King lingers on as a consultant, but was said to have “resigned in frustration”]. Feder reports that Mike Leiderman, executive producer of Chicago Tonight was abruptly fired, with conflicting official and rumor explanations given for Leiderman’s demise. King’s role has been assumed by Dan Schmidt, President and CEO of Window to the World, Communications—WTTW’s parent. Mary Field, Executive Producer/news, has taken over for Leiderman.

King, a colleague and friend of Bob Sirott from Fox, was introduced to WTTW by Sirott when Sirott did a “documentary” for WTTW after Sirott left Fox in 1999. After King signed on with WTTW, he brought Bob Sirott on board [the Sirott two step] to be the host and Managing Editor of Chicago Tonight, when the show expanded to an hour in 2002. Sirott, more at home as a television disc jockey than as a serious public policy guy, was an odd pairing from the beginning with prior Chicago Tonight host Phil Ponce.

The odd choice of Sirott as “Managing Editor,” was noted in a prescient and perceptive article by Steve Rhodes in the October, 2002 issue of Chicago. Rhodes quoted Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington as reporting essentially that Chicago Tonight would be “dumbed down.” As is so often the case, Washington was “spot on,” as Chicago Tribune columnist and blogger Eric Zorn likes to say.

And, in large part, that is what has happened under Sirott. Perhaps in an attempt to revive ratings that had been near the basement when he arrived [50,000 per night—a good local access program might beat that], Sirott has cut the public policy portion of the show to about 18 minutes, or so, on average and on occasion, he has bumped the lead public policy of the show for what appears to be his favorite segment, sports. The remainder of the show is filled up with Sirott talking with others about films, plays, gadgets, plants, music, food, etc. In short, Sirott has contributed by adding a public TV version of commercial local news features to Chicago Tonight. As Laura Washington predicted, this has been the dumbing down of the once, proud, hard news and public policy program. Ponce has broadened his "range" by joining Sirott in some of the commercial local news features, and Phil does that well, to his credit.

On the plus side, Sirott does a nice two minutes of local news that WTTW viewers want to hear about: 30 seconds on weather and sports, and quickies on important press conferences of the day with the Mayor, the Governor, etc. And the music between segments is also good—maybe even good to dance to. Give credit to DJ Sirott for that.

Occasionally, the clips of the press conferences expand to three or four minutes and that is a nice innovation. Also, Sirott will often “interview” correspondents Elizabeth Brackett [who is also a substitute anchor] , Eddie Arruza and Rich Samuels about the press conferences or that day’s city or state corruption story.— Samuels has gotten quite good at that and should be given an expanded role at Chicago Tonight. Sometimes Brackett, Arruza and Samuels report as correspondents at news events and those reports generally work. Arruza has been a good addition to the Chicago Tonight news team.

On the negative side, the one hour Chicago Tonight has never jelled. The mixture of features and public policy probably pleases neither set of viewers. It is possible that Sirott has a base who want to see him do his light, fluffy features. I haven’t seen the ratings, or the breakdowns. But, if Sirott has that base, spin off the miscellaneous Sirott features and put Chicago Tonight back as a serious public policy show, either for a half hour or an hour.

Ponce has recently started hosting a new, weekly half hour show, Chicago Sunday. His first two shows have had somewhat serious interviews with U. S. Senator Barack Obama and former D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge and White House Counsel Ab Mikva. The remainder of Chicago Sunday has been filled with “Chicago Places” and “Artbeat Chicago.” The format is kind of a half hour version of the Sirott Chicago Tonight, and fails for the same reason discussed above. The good news, for Ponce and WTTW, is that the Chicago Sunday pilots are a reminder that Ponce can handle Hosting and Managing Editor duties, as well as the public policy interviews and panel discussions he leads. Of course, everybody should have already known that, from the numerous times Ponce has stepped in for Sirott, without missing a beat, so to speak.

What Chicago Tonight needs is some serious spicing up of the public policy panel discussions and interviews. Maybe add someone who is at home doing tough, aggressive and provocative—but fair interviews. That would be a good complement for Ponce’s low-key style.

The complement to Ponce should be someone who knows and enjoys discussing city, state and national issues, and who has the breadth and depth of knowledge in law, politics and economics to do that interviewing by asking unscripted questions. And, of course, WTTW could use some balance. They have so many who seem to tilt left. They need someone who tilts, ever so slightly, to the right- and who understands conservatives as well as liberals, and Republicans as well as Democrats. But, who that could be- I just don’t know. I just don’t know, as Joseph said.

Such a shift would liberate Chicago Tonight from the DJ, stilted, idea lite style of Bob Sirott. And, it would satisfy the need to return Chicago Tonight to a public policy show, and yet would give it a chance to compete for strong ratings, something with which Sirott appears not to be helping.

Similarly, giving Sirott his walking papers, at least from Chicago Tonight, would be a blessing in disguise for Sirott. Feder says the departure of King could “mean trouble” for Sirott, whose contract with Chicago Tonight expires in June. But, that’s completely wrong. WTTW should liberate Bob Sirott, who is a talented television guy- just not for Chicago Tonight.

When mistakes are made—those involved need to admit them, clean up the mess and move on. Isn’t that what they taught us in grade school? I think the Window to the World, Communications Board, Dan Schmidt and everyone involved knows this. So, what are they waiting for?
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at