Chic-a-go-go

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:

Kurtis Productions
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.

Towers Productions
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.

Luminair
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 Entertainment
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
Productions

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.

Semaphore Media
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.

Kartemquin Films
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.

Nomadic Pictures
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.

MPI Media
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.