Controversy brewing at WTTW, Channel 11

Posted by Mitchell - January 29, 2004 (entry 142)

Laura Washington
Chicago Sun Times Jul 8, 2002

Television is not a summer sport. And if you are like me, you've put your couch-potato ways in mothballs and are pursuing the delights of the season, away from the tube.

But while you relax in the sun, a big controversy is brewing at WTTW-Channel 11. Station insiders are simmering over the long- planned revamp of the station's flagship public affairs show, "Chicago Tonight." As first reported by Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder, the new show, tentatively dubbed "Network Chicago Tonight," will expand to an hour in the fall.

Station chief Dan Schmidt announced that longtime Chicago broadcaster Bob Sirott will replace Phil Ponce as host and serve as managing editor, to "build on the trusted, in-depth news analysis that 'Chicago Tonight' . . . [is] known for...."

The whispers in the corridors have been as hot and heavy as our recent heat wave. Station insiders say that Channel 11's nationally acclaimed franchise for hard news and analysis will be "dumbed down." That "Chicago Tonight" will become "Fox Thing in the Evening," a takeoff on the fluffy morning show that Sirott once anchored.

This might smack of snobbery, and no doubt that there is plenty of that to go around at WTTW, officially known as Window to the World but long ago nicknamed Winnetka Talks to Wilmette because the station's staff, board and donors have been predominantly white and middle- to upper-class.

And it may be unfair to Sirott, an Emmy-winning feature reporter and by all accounts a smart, pleasant and creative guy.

And you can't blame WTTW for trying to jazz up their programming to stem failing ratings.

But there may be reason for unease. While WTTW is running after the same audience that every station in town is chasing, it cannot afford to lose its niche. "Chicago Tonight" is a Chicago treasure that tells us, as no other local program, the story behind the story, with a mix of news analysis, opinion and commentary in a roundtable discussion hosted by the talented Ponce, who took over the show's venerable legacy from John Callaway.

I have been privileged to contribute to the show as a guest and correspondent for more than a decade. It is the only place on local TV where Chicago can debate vital issues such as race relations, affordable housing and government accountability--the real story behind the story.

But the 17-year-old show needs some tweaking, and its producers know it. It wouldn't be the end of the world if they dropped segments on national and international stories. A Chicago-based program can't attract credible experts with first-hand knowledge on complex issues such as the pope's health, violence in the Middle East and the shenanigans at WorldCom, to cite a few recent shows.

Station honchos will spend the rest of the summer shaping their "work in progress." Chief programmer Randy King hopes that Ponce will "anchor" the news segment, and be a "cornerstone" of the new hour.

But who will be in charge? King says executive producer Mary Field will continue to be in charge. But Sirott's title of managing editor suggests he'll have decision-making authority. King says he is lining up other news veterans. Callaway could interview authors, he suggests, and he is talking to former "60 Minutes II" correspondent Carol Marin about doing investigative pieces.

There's a lot of big-ticket talent, given that the station just cut 15 jobs and has been facing a $5.5 million budget shortfall.

If WTTW wants to prove it's truly "public television," it should finally reach out to some long-neglected audiences. The Channel 11 viewers I hear from most are not the Winnetka white hairs, but the regular working-class folk who value news and information about their everyday lives. The bus and taxicab drivers, the office workers and block club presidents ask me when they will see more of their faces and issues. We'll have to wait and see. But by fall, it will be the viewers who'll decide whether WTTW is Window to the World, or "Worth the Trouble to Watch."


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