During the convention, you’re probably counting on our local cable service to keep you fixed with CNN and C-SPAN. There’s bad news about that. Cable service in Chicago, particularly in the areas along the lakefront, is notoriously flaky. So if you experience one of our routinely scheduled outages, you may be driven to watch that archaic entertainment form “broadcast television.” The slim pickings are as follows:


The chaos in the ethereal upper reaches of the CBS network finds its mortal counterpart here: the station has for the last few years lurched alarmingly between gleeful freakazoid sleazemeistering and wildly hyped rediscoveries of journalistic integrity. Lately it’s reached an uneasy truce: puffery specialist Linda MacLennan handles the in-depth focus reports on Princess Di’s sex life, while hard-hitting Bill Kurtis turns in the shocking exposes on mass murderer Richard Speck’s sex life. If they ever converge, God help us all.


The only station more interested in politics than you are; turn these guys on at 3 AM on any election night and they’ll be in crisis-mode overdrive because the county assessor’s race is still a toss-up. They tend to regard politics as a branch of organized crime, which is fine for Chicago but dispiriting when they take in the national scene – their Whitewater coverage was even nastier than Wolf Blitzer’s. (Each night’s detailed coverage of the latest unsubstantiated insinuation began with the infamous weasel-worded phrase “New questions are being raised…”) Still, they’ll be the only place to go if the platform committee gets into a juicy squabble about tariffs.


The originator of Happy Talk news in the 60s, and still remarkably jolly three decades later – as exemplified by the opening rock-video montage of frenzied Chicagoans rabid with hometown exuberance (no real Chicagoan is that upbeat – we’re too afraid of a coronary). But mainly it’s got Floyd Kalber, who’s spent so long polishing his gruff-anchorman delivery he’s unintelligible. Stick it out to hear him introduce the weather – he slurs “meteorologist” into a two-syllable rumble. The combination of upbeat dazzle and garbled sound gives the news a disturbingly dreamlike aura – and is absolute hell if you’ve got a hangover.


Fighting a decades-long reputation for tedium approaching the transcendental, WGN has recently started running promos suggesting that some of its on-air people (particularly on the morning shift) are in fact irrepressibly wacky. The station’s news still sounds like an optometrists’ club on heavy medication. The only remotely wacky on-air presence is the ineffably sinister weatherman, Tom Skilling, whose high-tech forecasts invariably predict a trend toward looming ecocatatostrophe due to hit town around the end of next week. Good thing you’ve already got your plane ticket out of here.


The station’s big show, Chicago Tonight, is the standard PBS snooze-o-rama: policy wonks, spin doctors, and party hacks running through their weary routines, sort of like Charlie Rose without the glamour. But the debates on global issues frequently have an air of seedy, Iceman Cometh wistfulness – after all, if these guys had any real standing as experts, they’d be deep inside the Beltway right now, and not stranded out here in Hicksville. They’re less melancholy when the subject is local: count on them to do a furiously contentious hour on minority hiring practices at the convention hall.


Cheap, shoddy, and tiresome, just as you’d expect from Fox, but unnerving for Chicagoans because most of the on-air talent are refugees and castoffs from other local news shows. Nobody on TV ever goes away; people just transmigrate across channels to a poorer outlet. Let’s hope the afterlife isn’t like this for the rest of us.


The local Christian station actually spends more time on politics than anybody else, but most of its coverage centers on the Book of Daniel’s unfavorable remarks regarding the European Union. Its long-running obsession is which prominent EU politician will reveal himself to be the Antichrist. Suspicion falls heavily on King Juan Carlos I of Spain – useful to know if you go into the State Department and get the Madrid posting. But at least the station’s convention coverage will be unique in its tone of high drama; nobody else will be as interested, if not to say panicked, by what’s in your platform. You might find it very bracing – if you’re having trouble motivating yourself to get out of bed and carry on the devil’s work.

-Lee Sandlin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Peter Hannan.