CHICAGOAN AND FORMER FCC chair Newton Minow famously characterized television as a “vast wasteland,” but there’s plenty of life on the prairie. Shows have been made here since TV’s beginnings, from the first soap opera (These Are My Children, in 1949) to Kukla, Fran and Ollie to Unsolved Mysteries to Prison Break.
Not all our contributions to national programming are immediately obvious. Many shows identified with Chicago have little to do with the city beyond their opening credits: Hill Street Blues (the police station at 943 W. Maxwell), The Bob Newhart Show (Bob’s office was at 430 N. Michigan), Married With Children (Buckingham Fountain), Good Times (Cabrini-Green). Others have tried harder to capture that Chicago feel but don’t always make it. Even ER, which makes it to town for some location shooting, ends up with devices like hot dog vendors working outside in the winter or a woodsy creek winding next to a skyscraper.
None of the series that loyalists have gotten produced here in recent years have lasted long, despite all the local talent rounding out the casts: Chicago Story (Dennis Franz, John Mahoney), Turks (Michael Muhney), Cupid (Jeremy Piven), Life With Bonnie (the third of three Bonnie Hunt has set here), Early Edition (a resumé credit for various locals in the 90s), What About Joan (Joan Cusack). Even Oprah had no luck with a 1990 spin-off from her TV movie The Women of Brewster Place.
There is, however, a lot of made-in-Chicago TV filling the national airwaves. Well-known exports include the winner-and-still-champ of the talk show genre, The Oprah Winfrey Show, which sprang from Oprah’s gig as host of AM Chicago on the ABC affiliate Channel Seven in 1984. Her show effectively picked up where Phil Donahue, who filmed his groundbreaking talk show here from 1974 to 1985 before moving to New York, left off. Buena Vista’s Ebert & Roeper started out in 1975—with the Tribune’s late Gene Siskel, not Richard Roeper, sharing the aisle seats with Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert—as Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, a monthly show on public station WTTW.
Other syndicated shows currently produced here include The Jerry Springer Show and Judge Mathis. WTTW produces the concert series Soundstage, which was resurrected recently after originally running from 1974 to 1985, and Mexico—One Plate at a Time, starring Frontera Grill chef Rick Bayless.
But Chicago’s hidden strength in national TV is local producers of nonfiction shows—or what’s called “factual programming.” There are too many to mention them all, but chances are good you’ve seen programs from one of these:
Founded by former news anchor Bill Kurtis, this company is responsible for high-profile programming on A & E, including The New Explorers, the long-running Investigative Reports, and its highly successful spin-off Cold Case Files. Cold Case Files is seen as the granddaddy of the current boom in forensics-based shows of all kinds, including CSI and Jerry Bruckheimer’s Cold Case, the latter of which, due to an A & E lawsuit over its awfully similar title, must run a promo for Cold Case Files at the end of each show.
Founded by former CNN reporter Jonathan Towers, who began his independent producing career with A & E’s popular American Justice (narrated by Kurtis), they’ve produced documentaries for A & E (including for the popular Biography), History Channel, National Geographic, and the Weather Channel, among others. New programming includes Sports Action Team (“Reno 911 meets Sports Center”), which mixes Chicago-based improv actors and real-life celebrities (it will air in many markets after the new NBC Sunday Night Football), and The Final Report, a National Geographic program presenting new information about old news stories.
Coproducer of Mexico— One Plate a Time with WTTW, Luminair is also responsible for an upcoming series in development with Chicago chef Gale Gand (The Heirloom Recipe Project).
Thea Flaum Productions
Thea Flaum is well-known in the industry for first putting Siskel and Ebert together at WTTW. Now she specializes in programs for PBS, HGTV, DIY, and Fine Living, including among others From Junky to Funky, in its second season of production for DIY, and the upcoming Retail Therapy, for Fine Living.
Bellevue makes high-definition nature shows and entertainment programming for Bravo, the Travel Channel, and Discovery HD Theater, such as the recent Las Vegas Live and Yellowstone: America’s First National Park.
Broadview Media and Pie Town
Both are out-of-town companies with active offices in Chicago. Pie Town turns out a chunk of programming here for two of its HGTV favorites, Designed to Sell and Design on a Dime, and Broadview produces shows for the Discovery Channel, TLC, HGTV, History Channel, DIY, and others.
A producer of documentary films, this company has gotten busy in the last few years franchising Check, Please!, the extremely popular local restaurantreview show that it coproduces with WTTW. A San Francisco version is in its second season, a show in LA is currently in development, and other major cities may be on their way.
Known for the theatrical release Hoop Dreams, this documentary group also produces projects for TV such as the recent PBS series The New Americans and the specials Refrigerator Mothers and Golub. Others in production include a documentary with Chicago Tribune writer Howard Reich based on his work about the emergence of his mother’s memories of the Holocaust.
Tod Lending of Nomadic made Omar and Pete, shown last year on PBS, about two men struggling with life on parole, and the Oscar-nominated film Legacy, about generations of a family in the Henry Horner housing project, in addition to other documentaries. Upcoming projects include Why War?, based on Chris Hedges’s best seller.
The Kindling Group
Kindling is currently in production with The Calling, a multipart series profiling future leaders of different faiths in America, and Devon Ave, an American Street, about the cultural diversity along the famous northside street. Executive director Daniel Alpert produced A Doula Story and No Time to Be a Child and coproduced Legacy.
A very early player in the video distribution market, this Orland Park company draws on its extensive film library for its videos and DVDs. Best known for producing films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and distributing Faces of Death and the “Superbowl Shuffle” video, MPI also produces documentaries shown on PBS, including biographies of Jackie Gleason, the Carpenters, and Petula Clark and an investigation of the Zapruder film shown on the History Channel.
Spiffy Pictures Highland Park-based company that produces Jack’s Big Music Show, a popular musicbased puppet show for preschoolers seen on Nickelodeon’s Noggin network; the show falls into the happy pleasing-adults-as-well-as-kids category (Jon Stewart just filmed an episode for the second season). Spiffy’s David Rudman has played Cookie Monster on Sesame Street for almost 20 years.
Really local TV
You can’t talk about TV without a nod to the incubator of local programming. Like most cities, our cable access—in this case stations 19, 21, 27, 36, and 42, under the umbrella of CAN TV—is a mix of weird, boring, cool, foreign, religious (and how), and civicminded. Some more describable highlights among the five stations include 3 Guys Pickin’; soul food Cookin Wit’ Tittle, hosted by local DJ La Donna Tittle; Taped With Rabbi Doug; and longtime cable access mainstays JBTV, a music video show cohosted with visiting bands, and Chic-a-Go-Go, the ultimate all-ages dance party. Cable access and UHF stations feature a wide variety of ethnic programming: on CAN there’s the nightly news from Italy, as well as programs for the Haitian, Irish, and Serbian communities, and WMME has local foreign- language shows on the weekend, including Assyrian, Romanian, Chinese, Polish, Hindi, and Greek. WCIU (“Chicago’s 1st UHF”) is the home of Svengoolie (currently the alter ego of Rich Koz), the horror and science fiction movie host. Public TV stations WYIN in Gary and the City Colleges of Chicago’s WYCC (which airs the nightly BBC World News) provide great public-TV alternatives when it seems like WTTW won’t quit begging.