A cliffhanger at 'Chicago Tonight'

Posted by Scott - June 21, 2005 (entry 322)

Published in Crain's Chicago Business

A cliffhanger at 'Chicago Tonight'
WTTW news show is on a roll, but host Sirott's contract is set to expire

June 06, 2005
By Jeremy Mullman

Bob Sirott, host of the revamped "Chicago Tonight," is in contract negotiations with WTTW. His current deal expires at the end of the month. Photo: Andreas Larsson

More than two years after its launch, the revamped "Chicago Tonight" has increased its share of the local TV audience 50%, and the non-profit station carrying it, WTTW-TV/Channel 11, has a balanced budget.

All that remains is to re-sign the host, whose contract expires this month.

Veteran local broadcast personality Bob Sirott has anchored the revamped "Chicago Tonight" since its debut in November 2002. A WTTW spokeswoman declines to comment on his contract, saying only that negotiations are in progress. Mr. Sirott did not return phone calls. His agent, Jimmy de Castro, declines to comment.

The contract talks come as "Chicago Tonight," the centerpiece of WTTW's local programming lineup, is gaining some traction in the ratings: Nearly 55,000 viewers tune in each weeknight. In turn, the station has been able to boost fees it charges "Chicago Tonight" advertisers -- or "underwriters," in public TV parlance -- helping the station break even in 2004 after posting a deficit the previous year.

But there have been some changes on the set recently. WTTW Vice-president Randolph King -- who came to Channel 11 with Mr. Sirott from their previous employer, WFLD-TV/Channel 32 -- recently quit. And the show's executive producer, Mike Leiderman, also recently left.

Messrs. King and Leiderman, who didn't return calls, were part of the team that helped reshape "Chicago Tonight" after longtime host John Callaway stepped down in 1999. (Phil Ponce, who still contributes to the show, took over as host for two years before the new version was unveiled.)

The production team retooled "Chicago Tonight," switching from its single-issue, news-oriented half-hour format to an hour-long program filled with shorter segments and softer feature stories.

The show's audience, even before Mr. Callaway left, was never huge; at its peak in the Callaway era, the show drew 93,000 viewers. Now, with 55,000 viewers, "Chicago Tonight" still grabs only a small slice of the local audience. By comparison, the average audience in May for Chicago's five late newscasts was about 250,000.


But "Chicago Tonight" viewers have traditionally been loyal, and when the new show debuted in late 2002, some worried it would be dumbed down.

Public-affairs junkies say they still watch religiously, even if they don't care for the pop sensibility provided by Mr. Sirott, an ex-radio disk jockey and morning TV host.

Still, the ratings gains suggest that the expanded content (Crain's is a broadcast partner) has attracted new viewers while not annoying the old ones enough to prevent them from watching.

"It's too MTV for me now," says GOP gubernatorial candidate and former Helene Curtis CEO Ronald Gidwitz, 60. "But I still try to watch whenever I can."

The new format has "definitely been an adjustment for hardcore news junkies," says Alysia Tate, 33, editor and publisher of the Chicago Reporter, a newspaper focusing on urban policy issues. "But . . . most young people aren't interested in paying attention to something long and dry. . . . I do think they've quieted the skeptics."


The ratings gain hasn't been lost on advertisers. A 30-second spot on the show, which could cost as little as $200 during Mr. Ponce's tenure, now can go for as much as $1,500, media buyers say. Typically, the station charges advertisers 30% to 40% more per viewer than the major network outlets do, a premium it justifies by pointing to a far more affluent audience than those claimed by other local newscasts.

"Our customers fall in nicely with the viewership of the program," says a spokesman for LaSalle Bank, a longtime "Chicago Tonight" underwriter. "Certainly the ratings increase gives such an affiliation even greater value."

Increasing ad revenues helped the station break even in 2004 after posting a $2.3-million deficit in 2003, when it was forced to lay off 23 staffers. Still, like all public stations, budgets remain tight. And if Mr. Sirott wants a raise equal to the ratings increase he's overseen, it could be difficult for WTTW to accommodate him.

"You don't see a lot of stations showing that kind of growth," says Orland Park-based ad buyer Paula Hambrick. "For their sake, you'd hope they can find a way to keep everybody there."

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