Ten Years on the Outskirts of Television

We called Tom Weinberg to talk about the anniversary. “Did you know that ten years ago today the Susan B. Anthony dollar was issued?” he said the moment he picked up the phone.

Well, we hadn’t.

“Do you know where you can get them? Public transportation in Philadelphia. They issue them as tokens. I gave some to my kids a couple of years ago when I brought them back from the east.”

And then there’s Image Union, we muttered, hoping to jimmy the reason for the call into the conversation.

“Ten years ago,” Weinberg agreed. “Susan B. Anthony and Image Union.”

Nineteen seventy-eight was a mixed year for great expectations. The SBA dollar soon died and went to Philadelphia; but Image Union, the WTTW new-video show that Weinberg has produced since its creation, is turning ten with a blowout. The show’s New Year’s Eve edition begins at the usual time, ten o’clock Saturday night on Channel 11, but it’ll run two and a half hours instead of the usual 30 minutes. Weinberg is cramming it with highlights of old shows plus some folderol cooked up for the occasion.

“There’s a whole thing about Bob, the Image Union man, the cartoon guy,” Weinberg said. “Bob is a mini cult figure, so we’ve made a little music video out of him.”

Bob is the guy with the means-well expression that captures the spirit of WTTW even better than Marty Robinson.

“I mean, Bob is known! Bob is known! It’s remarkable. So there’s a little piece called ‘This Is Your Life, Bob,’ by Roger Bain, who’s an independent producer and performer. He has a few surprises coming out of the curtain talking to Bob.

“Donna Blue Lachman is the emcee. She’s the Jeff Award winner from the Blue Rider Theater. She’ll kind of walk us through the party. The whole thing takes place in the basement of Bob’s trailer home. We’ll have to duck for the pipes a little bit, probably. There’ll be some of Bob’s closest friends, maybe 30 or 40 of them. There’ll be a little music, and a surprise that happens right at midnight. I’d be happy to tell you what it is if I knew, but I’m working on it.”

In 1972, Tom Weinberg rented a big house in Miami Beach, and a bunch of “very bright, cutting-edge kind of people” from around the country moved in to shoot the two national political conventions (Miami got them both that year). They brought along their hand-held video cameras, which back then were new as could be. They called themselves “TV TV.” “We sort of invented portable video TV,” said Weinberg. “It was all fresh. We weren’t making cinema verite film. We were making TV. We just started shooting everything.”

With an attitude? we asked him. “There clearly was an attitude. It was acerbic and irreverent, sometimes self-indulgent. Cheap shots were not in any way–feared. Hah hah hah. And part of that came from the process. It wasn’t as deliberate as people thought.”

A TV TV clip from ’72, “Four More Years,” will be shown on the anniversary show. After the conventions, TV TV settled in San Francisco, made six or eight shows over the next couple of years, and then shifted to LA. The idea was to move seriously into the TV business. Weinberg discovered he did not want to be in the TV business in LA and he came home to Chicago.

In ’76, he and Scott Jacobs and T.W. Theodore opened the Chicago Editing Center, soon renamed the Center for New Television. Sometime in the winter of ’77-’78 a historic meeting took place there: two or three dozen local video producers and a delegation from WTTW met to discuss how to get more independent work on television. “It was a fairly benign discussion that became a screaming match,” said Weinberg. “That’s how the times were.”

The upshot of that meeting was Image Union, Tom Weinberg producing. “Because I was both chairman of the Center for New Television and in touch with the community, and I had proven I wasn’t a complete raving maniac by producing close to a dozen shows for ‘TTW by then, I became the logical choice.”

Weinberg said, “What you see here you don’t see anywhere else. Some of it you do see somewhere else, and now we’re into different stuff. . . . Locally, it’s opened up the window a little bit for what’s acceptable, what’s OK to be on TV. We take risks on purpose. We don’t take stupid risks but we’re looking to take risks. Which is a completely different attitude from a lot of TV and most of Channel 11 too, from my point of view.”

Image Union has never won an Emmy. “We’re 0 for 11, actually,” Weinberg said. “We’ve already lost for 1988.” He couldn’t remember every category Image Union has lost in, so he asked his coproducer, Jamie Ceasar, to do some research.

So, are you tired of it? we asked Weinberg.

“I’m very proud of it,” Weinberg said.

We asked him again.

“Let’s see,” said Weinberg. “In the last few months I’ve changed my status. So I’m off the staff of WTTW and I’m back to being an independent contractor for the show. So I have less direct hands-on responsibility, which gives me the freedom to do other things.

“The big thing is I’m going ahead–I guess it’s not time to say for sure, but I’m working on developing ways to get independent stuff on the satellite and around the country, not just Chicago. And inventing new formats for doing it that are more in tune for now, the 90s, if you will. I sort of think we did this for ten years and I’ll do the next thing for ten years. It may not have anything to do with Channel 11 but it’ll certainly have to do with innovative TV and independent producers and with being an alternative to the kind of drivel we’re forced to see on most of TV.”

Weinberg’s thinking big. “I’m looking for the better part of an evening, then I’m looking for an evening, then I’m looking for–not a channel, but a place on the dial that everyone knows is different, sort of what NPR became for radio, I’m looking for an identity, just a button in everybody’s house. If they want something different they can just point to it. It’s a gig, it’s a tall order. I’ll spend all my time the next several years doing that.”

Jamie Ceasar came back with Weinberg’s list.

“These are the categories of the Emmys we’ve lost over the years,” Weinberg told us. “Entertainment programming series–we lost to the guy on 32, Count Dracula, whatever, Son of Svengoolie, he beat us two or three years. And the second category is informational programming for a magazine series. I know there was at least one other.

“There’s no comedy category,” Weinberg regretted. “No documentary series category. Animation series category. Art series category . . .

“That proves a point,” he concluded. “There really is no category.”

The Mystery of Mary Ann

Did you set aside “Mary Ann Childers: The Mini-Series,” the four-part saga published in the Sun-Times, and now wonder if it’s too much to tackle? We spoke to the author, Rob Feder, and then prepared the following study guide, which might make Feder’s daunting study more accessible.

The significance

“Mary Ann is the number-one anchor woman in Chicago and has been for three years. She’s been coming into my living room for eight years and I never had any idea who the individual was behind the screen.”

The mission

“I set out to find out if there is really a person behind the image and what that person is like.”

The research

“I wound up with 30 separate people I spoke to. Some were not for attribution. I spoke with her on four separate occasions, four pretty extensive sessions.”

The drollery

“I created a parody of a television event, a parody of the way TV hypes and overblows everything it touches. So I decided to package it as a miniseries, each one with a teaser to it the way television does.”

The gravity

“I don’t mean to suggest the substance of it was a joke. Everything I wrote is true and none of it was meant to be sarcastic or tongue in cheek.”

The goddess

“The physical element of it, her physical presence, is part of the story. She herself said you don’t see many women over 40 in TV news. You can also say you don’t see many unattractive women. To have ignored it was to ignore a considerable part of what you get.”

The enigma

“‘The two faces of Mary Ann’ [the title of one installment] I believe were fulfilled in suggesting . . . that there was the public image she portrays and then there’s the reality.”

The reality

“I basically got two people who basically laid out a case against her as a mean, petty, vindictive prima donna. I couldn’t use their names and I couldn’t get anyone to corroborate that. I had a lot of on-record material that she was a nice sweet genuine person.”

The impenetrable mystery

“After all of these months and all of these interviews I’m still not entirely sure that I understand what she’s about. The moment never came to me. I never got the flash you sometimes get when it all comes together. Whenever I thought I knew which direction to go, I would hear something that was an entirely different view of reality. So I never felt I really knew who this person was.”

Coming up for air

“I think at this point I know about as much as I want to know.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Booz.