Saturday, August 13, 2005

Another day, another fumble. Today, it’s WTTW's "Chicago Tonight."

As I have said a few times before, in its Glory Days, Chicago Tonight ("CT") was a half hour show focused on politics and public policy, with hard hitting questioning by John Callaway. It was known as the jewel of WTTW, Public TV in Chicago.

Bob Sirott, when he was made the CT host and managing editor three years ago, changed [some would say destroyed] all that when CT was expanded to one hour, with the public policy stuff reduced to about the first eighteen minutes of the show [and sometimes less], and the remainder of CT devoted to soft feature stuff, very similar to the kind of fluff and stuff you would find on any commercial television news station, or non-prime time commercial programming, although CT’s version was not quite as good.

It seemed odd to many viewers that Public TV was intended to be about sports, tired rock music artists, faded disc jockeys, miscellaneous media personalities who had fallen out of favor, fluff and stuff, etc., but that was Sirott’s vision and Sirott and Randy King [and Fox and Friends] were Dan Schmidt’s [President of WTTW] vision. Ironically, Callaway apparently left CT to become a thespian of sorts. Had he stayed, he could have become just another peculiar act for Sirott to showcase in his CT mishmash.

Now, King is gone and Sirott is said to be on his way out, unless he will accept an unspeakable pay cut from a way above-market salary. Unspeakable for Sirott, that is. And, Schmidt and WTTW seem to be without any vision—except for maybe tunnel vision.

With all of this going on, the WTTW Board does what? Isn’t this the time the Board is supposed to step in and look for management who can effectively turn around an operation that has gone awry? And, there are some smart people on the Board who should know something about that. Perhaps, they will act soon. Perhaps it is time for the Board to have a chat with Dan.

With Sirott now treading water, and CT now taking on water, the show seems to be experimenting with different segment moderators, with the format, with the topics, with, well—anything they can. The problem with this approach is that it is experimentation for the sake of experimentation.

CT clearly is a lost soul with no strategic focus, other than perhaps to continue to dumb down the segments in a futile attempt to compete with commercial, local news one night, and produce hopelessly pseudo-highbrow, boring segments the next night.

CT’s segment topics appear to be generated almost randomly, as if WTTW’s managing editor and production staff were now imitating The Newsroom,” which is an excellent Canadian television production that was itself a parody of commercial television news and had been airing weekly, on Sunday nights, on WTTW. The Newsroom mysteriously disappeared, last month, from WTTW’s schedule.

The public policy segment in the first fifteen to twenty minutes of CT has been encroached on from time to time by Sirott. For example, Sirott once put at the beginning of the show a segment about the Chicago Bulls reaching a deal to keep its coach. Sports and oldies appear to be Sirott’s strength and love, so he must think the more CT does on that, the better the show. Think again. Failing the ability to find something exciting on any given day about sports or oldies, CT has started to dabble in almost anything “catchy,” and “sexy,” I imagine, cannot be far away.

Gas prices high? Well, then, let’s go there, said CT two nights ago. What did we learn in the first eighteen minutes of CT on Thursday night? Why you should keep your automobile gas caps fastened tight to avoid evaporation and save a few pennies. Boy, talk about getting down to nuts and bolts. You can’t get much more nuts and bolts, or is it “dumbed down,” then that.

Then it was over to lung cancer-- who gets it, why they get it, when they get it, what to do about it, how to stop smoking and will that save you from lung cancer? Steve Edwards [WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio] was “sitting in,” again on Thursday’s CT [See here for more on Steve's background and recent appearance on CT] for the lung cancer episode. Sirott was off, so Ponce sat in for Sirott, and Edwards for Ponce—kind of like musical chairs. Making up for the boring, perhaps too high brow segment Steve got last week (Lake Michigan concerns), tonight it was a feature right out of any local, commercial news show—Eradicating lung cancer in five easy steps.

I don’t mean to denigrate the importance and difficulty of detecting and dealing with lung cancer or the general topic of how science and medicine are dealing with lung cancer, but is that type of programming the reason to have either public TV or CT. Commercial TV does a reasonably good job on that sort of thing. Health features, with related medical and science features, including “smoking cessation programs,” which were also covered on Thursday night, are covered pretty well on the local commercial news, as well as on some specialized national cable programming. After all, keeping gas caps fastened tight and lung cancer are not particularly Chicago topics, are they? And, remember the name of the program is? Oh yes, CHICAGO Tonight.

But wait, in between all of these other “soft,” feature segments, Elizabeth Brackett narrated a five minute, or so, collage of recent [perhaps re-run] commentaries on U. S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who actually is particularly Chicago, at least for the last four years. No doubt this was stuck in just so I could not argue that CT tonight was entirely lacking in substantive public policy stuff on Thursday night.

But, even this was a watered down collection of clichés, most of which have been heard before by anybody who does not live under a rock. Further, the segment was more notable for what it omitted than what it contained.

David Axelrod [See here], a paid political consultant to Mayor Daley, among others, was described by Elizabeth Brackett as a “Mayor Daley ally.” Ally of Mayor Daley is perhaps one of the more bizarre ways to describe David Axelrod. Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, for example, might be described as an ally, at least for a good chunk of the time, to Mayor Daley. Former Republican Governor George Ryan would be another ally, or former ally, to the Mayor-- thus the John Kass coined phrase Daley-Ryan Combine.

Indeed, Elizabeth mentioned that George Ryan was scheduled to go on trial in the Fall, but forgot to tell us much about the behavior for which George was indicted by U. S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, nor was there anything on the Daley Ryan Combine. Oops, that would have meant mentioning the Mayor, who was pretty much omitted from the segment—except for the viewers being told that Axelrod was his ally and Fitzgerald had been working on corruption in the City of Chicago, including bribes and kickbacks at the Park District. That lack of attention to and focus on the City scandals kind of missed the point about the major impact that U. S. Attorney Fitzgerald has had.

David Axelrod, who Brackett put on apparently to “balance,” the good things that were being said about U. S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, probably did not disappoint the Mayor. Axelrod, who disparaged Patrick Fitzgerald for the sin of “spending his life in the prosecutor’s office,” and “seeing the world in very stark terms, good and evil…,” has been paid a great deal of money by the Mayor, and his campaigns, to handle media, message, etc.

Moreover, looking for someone to balance your show with a lot of “unfavorables,” about U. S. Attorney Fitzgerald is a bit odd. If you were going to do this, who would you interview. That is hard to know, but one person not to interview is a guy who makes his living from such talents as putting a positive spin on Daley’s purported lack of knowledge about and supervision of various high level officials in the Daley Administration, including a number who face public corruption allegations by Fitzgerald.

Elizabeth Brackett, or the people who write her copy, really should know that Axelrod is not an “ally of the Mayor.” In the same way that Dan Schmidt, President of WTTW is not Elizabeth Brackett’s “ally.” It would seem quite odd for Brackett to call her boss her ally. Similarly, we shouldn’t call Axelrod’s boss, Mayor Daley-- Axelrod’s ally. Although, we could say Boss Daley, the younger, is in a sense Axelrod’s boss.

So, instead of the lead in- Let’s go to Daley ally—David Axelrod, Brackett could have said, let’s see what one of Daley’s paid consultants, who has received [Tens of Thousands?] [hundreds of thousands?] [millions?][pick one of the former descriptions] over the years for work for the Mayor, has to say about the primary nemesis of the Daley Administration. Let’s see what Daley paid consultant, Axelrod, thinks about the man, U. S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who has indicted dozens of Mayor Daley Administration employees and officials and who, many think, may indict the Mayor himself and others who Axelrod may know quite well.

That description would have been a little bit more accurate than “Daley ally.” See what a difference a few words make. What was Brackett thinking? Beats me.

So, while the above, more complete description of the Daley-Axelrod relationship was omitted in Brackett’s piece, there was room, in her piece, for the statement by Daley’s paid consultant, David Axelrod, criticizing Patrick Fitzgerald for “going after people indiscriminately…”

For a while, I was unable to figure out where CT was going in terms of what kind of a show it wanted to be. But, in light of all of the above, I think I get it now. WTTW is putting CT up for bid. It is being re-shaped into a show that can be bought and sliced into Happy Talk feature news segments on 2, 5, 7, 9 and 32.

CT now has gas price reviews, lung cancer reviews, rodeo reviews, movie reviews, food reviews, restaurant reviews, Lake Michigan reviews, play reviews—you name your review, CT has it, an entire library of this fluff and stuff—that very few have wanted to watch—so, we ask you, what’s your bid, for boring stuff that most prefer not to watch? Like other companies that no longer click, WTTW is hoping CT is worth more broken up than it is as a whole entity. The same might be true for WTTW.

CT looks to be, and this makes sense, spinning off Sirott and friends, and all of his creations, e.g., movie reviews, food reviews, oldies reviews, gas cap reviews, etc. If Sirott and his numerous dumbed down segments can make it somewhere else, more power to him. However, he should no longer pollute CT’s public affairs programming with stuff that has nothing to do with public policy and politics in Chicago and the rest of Illinois.

But to survive as a public policy and politics show geared to Chicago, Chicago Tonight needs staff who know the difference between a Daley ally and a Daley paid consultant. It really is not a tough distinction to make. Ask Daley paid consultant David Axelrod. He knows the difference.

It also needs people who know politics: how to verbalize it, how to produce it and how to put it on TV in a way that attracts and keeps viewers coming back.

It needs staff who understand that there really are two political parties in Chicago, Cook County and the rest of Illinois. The Republican Party in Illinois may be limping and sick, but if you want to have Republican pols on TV to provide counterpoints to the Dems in power, they exist and they make for good TV. And, most importantly, they don’t begin with Edgar and end with Topinka, who seem to be about the only two Republicans that the CT folks know and care about. Again, these folks exist and having them, along with Democrats, on CT, would make for good public policy and political programming-- and good TV.

But, the folks doing CT don’t have a clue about how to do this. It really is time to clean house at CT, but this time—don’t dumb it down. Smart it up. And this time, CT should stick to politics and public policy. Especially as they play out in Illinois, including, of course, Chicago, the suburbs and downstate.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at