Friday, August 05, 2005

Chicago Tonight starts to clean house, perhaps; Can it find Gary Skoien?


Regular readers of this blog should be aware of the fact that Chicago Tonight [“CT”], airing on the Chicago Metropolitan Public TV station, ch. 11, [every weekday evening at 7:00 pm, and repeated several times during the evening] has been on a sharp, steady decline for the last few years, as it chopped the thirty minute politics and public policy segment of the John Callaway era to fifteen or twenty minutes in the Bob Sirott era. CT filled the rest of a new hour long show with play reviews, movie reviews, gadget reviews, food reviews, restaurant reviews, sports, and long boring interviews with people about whom nobody cares—unless of course you like old sports stars, dull media people, old liberal icons and old crooners [Is Public TV supposed to fill the gap in terms of too few sports, media and liberal icons on commercial TV?].

Indeed, the focus on “Oldies but goodies,” on CT has been somewhat ironic in that Dan Schmidt, President of WTTW, justified the choice of Sirott and the makeover of CT several years ago by saying CT had to deal with its then problem that “70% of the CT viewers were over 70.” If so, why would part of the solution be to have guests who sounded like and seemed to be over 100. I exaggerate some, but only slightly. And, of course, I am not talking chronological age. Someone can be a very young 60, or a very old 40.

The back end of CT has been geared toward people who wanted to know what’s good to eat; the front end toward those who might want a dull, outdated style to analyze politics and public policy issues for fifteen minutes; and the middle to viewers who might like to see fading stars from the 60s. In short, someone at WTTW had taken a good one half hour CT show that did need some changes and made it into an hour show that would have little appeal to anybody, except maybe Ed Sullivan and people who remembered who he was.

Perhaps somehow that mishmash that CT became pushed ratings up a bit. WTTW makes that claim, so they may be right. There are all sorts of random disturbances in this world, so truly bad stuff sometimes does okay. However, the CT ratings are still terrible, and they might be lucky to have 40,000 sets, or so, tuning in on any given evening. That is a ridiculously low number in light of the amount of money and resources that WTTW puts into the show and in light of the potential audience of more than two million.

WTTW management, not having a clue about how to attract new viewers, tried to at least cut back on its “star” salaries by axing CT’s managing editor and host, Bob Sirott. Sirott’s termination was yet another botched WTTW deal, and he is now scheduled to depart in January, 2006, unless he can pull a rabbit out of a hat and produce some cash sponsors or a great many more viewers, neither of which is likely.

In the past when Ponce or Sirott took a night or two off, CT had one or the other do double duty or drafted someone who really is not a good replacement and made that person look bad by trying to do something they couldn’t.


But, last night, somebody decided to have Steve Edwards, host of Chicago Public Radio’s extremely well done “Eight Forty-Eight”, a morning magazine program, sit in for Ponce. What a brilliant decision. Edwards is known for his balance and amazing level of preparation. He happens to have a very good associate editor, Adriene Hill, who is at least partially responsible for the good preparation and good guests, but Edwards gets some credit for that as well. Being able to identify and keep talent to help make you look good is not all that easy.

Each morning Eight Forty-Eight serves up, as it says, >[See here] “a diverse mix of interviews, discussions, documentaries, produced pieces, news reports, and original essays—all with a local bent.” The first 25 minutes of the 80 minute [starting each weekday at 9:35 am on 91.5 FM] show often focuses on politics or public policy, and especially for someone who does not specialize in politics, Edwards does it very well—even earning the public applause of conservative media personality Tom Roeser—and that has to be a first for someone either on public radio or public TV, both of which are generally viewed as tilting [some would use much stronger words] left of center.

Edwards’ segments often include interviews with political candidates or office-holders, as well as important appointees, such as the CTA’s CEO Frank Kruesi or it’s Chairman Carol Brown, [then] U. S. Senate Candidate Barack Obama and Jack Ryan, aldermanic candidates in a primary contested by an independent and someone from the regular Democratic organization, Cook County Clerk David Orr on the Shakman decree, Senator Durbin or a Congressman or two.

That is quite a political or public policy range, and Edwards does it well, every day, every time and his range goes much further, extending to culture, the arts and local history. Again, my guess is that his associate editor has something to do with his extensive, careful, thorough research and preparation in all of those areas. But, still, Steve gets a chunk of the credit for Adriene being there.

Edward’s debut on CT last night was, as expected, picture and verbal perfect, as we would expect from Edwards. He had no trouble making the transition from radio to television. He knows where the camera is, when to look at it and how to use a video prompter. His casual, listener friendly style translates well to a viewer friendly style.. Edwards asks intelligent questions, listens to the answers and comes up with questions based on what he hears. Indeed, I discovered he could do this fine when I videotaped the 2004 U. S. Senate Primary roundtable candidate discussions that Edwards hosted with some good panelists. I edited the debates into 30-minute shows and told anybody who would listen-- Edwards should be on TV.

That’s the plus side of Edward’s debut. I doubt the negative was his fault. It was the subject matter that was likely chosen by someone else having something to do with CT-- “The concerns over the future of Lake Michigan.” I am sure that it is an important topic but it is lousy TV and maybe even lousy radio. And the three guests were not the most dynamic panel and almost in complete agreement, all apparently shading to the left- a common criticism of CT panels.

This may come as a shock to the CT segment producer, but it is not the case that everybody in the Chicago Metropolitan area who is a serious thinker about Lake Michigan thinks that our major concerns in this century are that the World is running out of water, Lake Michigan will run out of water and Saudi Arabia is coming with tankers to take our water [Yes, that was one of the ideas thrown out last night]. In short, Edwards did a nice job technically for fifteen minutes, even though CT gave him very little with which to work. And, I am sure Edwards would have done an excellent job that would have attracted new viewers to CT if he had been given or chosen a more interesting topic with more ideologically diverse panelists.


Here are just two of the shows that CT could have handed Edwards:

(1)Senator Barack Obama, Senator Dick Durbin and Mayor Daley at a press conference, and the fireworks after the main show.

Heck, even with a zero budget, I pulled together a blog of some interest of Obama on Roberts, Obama on Daley [borrowing from Fran Spielman, who is another underutilized resource in Chicago broadcast political journalism] and Obama on Fitzgerald. [See here]. If I had a camera guy and a promise that what we shot would have been on CT that night, do you think I could have gotten some interviews that we could have put up for analysis and discussion by Edwards, Berkowitz, Hernandez-Gomez and Flannery, just to name a few.

Or, did CT try to get Obama, Durbin or Daley to do something, live, on the Transportation Bill or the improvements on Wacker Drive, but tell them that they would face some tough questions on other topics, e.g., who will endorse Mayor Daley in 2007 [See this morning’s news on Obama's hedging on the Daley endorsement issue here and here, why didn’t CT have Edwards and a panel discuss it last night], to make it interesting, unlike the dull, softball, guest promo shows for which WTTW has become known during the last few years.

One such dull show was filmed last month with Senator Durbin [and WTTW used it both on Chicago Sunday and Chicago Tonight-a new practice of CT- reruns without telling the viewers, beforehand, they are watching one]. The show with the senior Senator from Illinois consisted of about eight softballs served on a platter for Senator Durbin to hit out of the park. If Durbin demands that to be on the show, get somebody else. You are WTTW; you should be able to do it.

And, tell Senator Durbin and his handlers that not very many viewers are going to watch the Durbin infomercials. I did, but just so I could tell you how bad it was—with Senator Durbin asserting, unchallenged by Ponce, about how the vast right wing conspiracy did him in, notwithstanding Senator Durbin’s several tearful, apologies to the country at large about his “poor choice of words.” And, the problem is not Ponce. Ponce knows how to do a tough interview if he wants to. Yet, he both set them up for the Senator and didn’t challenge Durbin. Is somebody at WTTW telling Ponce that that is good TV? If so, Phil should remind such counselors of the good uses of Lake Michigan that still exist.

Steve Edwards can do the tough, interesting questioning easily, as could Hernandez-Gomez or I, for that matter. My Gosh, I could do it falling out of bed. And, sometimes I do.

CT did get about a minute of boring tape of the above referenced press conference for its two-minute news summary lead in to last night’s show. Big deal- CT gets a minute of boring tape when it had a crack at three major political personalities for almost an hour, and that is not counting Cong. Danny Davis who was standing virtually by himself for five minutes before the press conference started. He gave me a short interview and I am not WTTW. Guess what folks, it is time for CT to send more than a camera to these events, and somebody who knows what to ask in front of the camera. How costly can that be?

(2)Cook County Chairman Gary Skoien and the Great Divide in the GOP as to how to handle the Daley Administration public corruption issue.

This is really amazing. Gary Skoien makes the now famous statement about offering $10,000 for information about corruption leading to the conviction of the Mayor and then loses one of his two executive level jobs, as a result of making that statement. And, CT, as of 9:00 pm Wednesday night, still had not called Skoien to appear on CT.

CT has had numerous City of Chicago mopes, uh- I mean alderman-- on the show during the last few weeks, saying the same boring stuff—“Don’t give up our aldermanic patronage—even though we don’t have it, we’d like it.” CT has had Laura Washington on the show, God Bless her—Laura has sounded more like a Republican [this will be the kiss of death for Laura] than many other Republicans when she discussed on the show and in her column [See here] the inefficiencies, inequities and corruption of the Daley Administration.

CT has had Jay Stewart of the BGA, Dick Kay, Carlos Hernandez-Gomez, etc., but it can’t seem to find Gary Skoien’s phone number. It really seems as if nobody on CT knows a Republican unless it is State Treasurer Topinka, Cong. Kirk and State GOP Chairman McKenna. It is almost as if CT is allergic to the Republican wing of the Republican party, i.e., articulate, outspoken conservatives.

Why not do a show with the charismatic, outspoken Skoien and State GOP Chairman Andy McKenna, Jr., who has been Chairman for six months and who has yet to criticize, to any extent, the Daley Administration corruption in Chicago. That might have been a nice show for Edwards to debut with last night: Skoien and McKenna, with Chicago Sun-Times City Hall Reporter Fran Spielman in the middle. I think Franny might have a few “hot” questions for both Skoien and Andy, Jr.

Start the show by putting up the State GOP’s statement, disseminated last Friday, on the public corruption debate, as a nice, goofy graphic:

CHICAGO – “We share the frustration of republicans [sic] living in Cook County who have endured years of democratic [sic] corruption. And we are disappointed that individuals are punished in their private lives for their public positions and political views. At the same time we are saddened by the extreme measures taken by both sides of this debate. We need a more vigorous political debate in Cook County and an end to one party rule, but we should strive to elevate our dialogue with more civility and respect.” [Emphasis Supplied]

Some potential areas of questioning:

Chairman Andy McKenna, Jr.:

What are the two sides that you are moderating here? Can you really rally Republican voters when you appear to be trying to equate the evils of public corruption that surrounds the Daley Administration with the evils of Skoien’s harsh language?

In fact, who made the above statement? Your press secretary, Matt Leffingwell, said you were in Europe and Leffingwell said he could not elaborate on the meaning of the statement. Your new Executive Director, John Tsarpalas [former No.2 to New Trier Republican Organization Committeeman, Tolbert Chisum], was unavailable to speak with us last Friday as to the origins or meaning of the GOP statement, and no one has called us back this week to clarify the meaning of the statement.

Chairman Skoien:

Do you think you are getting the support of Andy Mckenna as you punch at the Daley Administration corruption? What do you say to those, including many of your fellow Republicans, who argue that your $10,000 bounty was a cheap stunt that hurt the Party. They say, follow the old rule—when your enemy is hurting and being fired upon, don’t get in the way of any bullets. Let the US Attorney do his job. What’s wrong with that advice?

Can the Cook County GOP really work with the State GOP when the chairs of each entity don’t seem to be speaking to each other?

The State GOP is flush with money and the Cook County GOP is virtually without funds. Why is that? Have you discussed financial assistance from the State GOP? Have you neglected fundraising? Is someone in the GOP trying to make sure your fundraising efforts are rebuffed?

Chairman Andy Mckenna, Jr.:

Has Chicago GOP Chairman Clark Pellett been speaking out on public corruption in the Daley Administration? When? Where? Is he lining up candidates to run for Mayor of Chicago? Who?

Cook County GOP Chairman Skoien:

Do you have credible candidates for County Sheriff and County Assessor?

Could Tony Peraica beat John Stroger for County Board President? Forrest Claypool? Jim Houlihan? Dorothy Brown, Mike Quigley? On the County Corruption issue? What evidence is there of county corruption? Are the voters generally content with Democratic Party rule. Isn’t the County Democratic Organization simply too strong? Too many happy Democratic voters and too many happy patronage workers who will be working on election day?

Fran Spielman:

Do you think the mainstream media give the Republicans an equal shot in town?

Are there any Republicans who ever give you good copy? Who?

Fran, what’s going on here—do you think either of these guys, Andy or Gary, is effectively using the corruption issue? Fran would not only comment, but turn to ask Andy and Gary some tough questions.

Do you know of any Republican countywide candidates who will be able to compete with the Ds?

Fran, what do you see as the problem with the Republican Party in Cook County? In Chicago? In the State?

Fran, have you ever called Pellett, Skoien and McKenna to get their input and statements? If not, Why Not?

The above are just a few questions for starters. Nobody should follow a script. Fire a few and then keep the dialogue going. Callaway said, start with a script, but when the guest gets engaged, throw away the script. What? I am the only person to whom he ever said that?

Instead of taking the above tack, CT hands Edwards “The concerns over the future of Lake Michigan.” Ohmygod, what were they thinking? Surely, it was not what is the hottest public policy/political issue we can do? But, why not? Why not, indeed. And, why won’t CT call Skoien? Those constant allergies that CT has to any Republicans who might actually be critical of the Combine, no doubt.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at