MEDIA PROFILE: Chicago Tonight aims for broader audience with new format

With a new format and a full hour, Chicago Tonight is hoping to pull in viewers beyond the public TV demographic. The changes have created some controversy, as well as pitching opportunities.

With a new format and a full hour, Chicago Tonight is hoping to pull in viewers beyond the public TV demographic. The changes have created some controversy, as well as pitching opportunities.

Chicago is a more tradition-bound city than New York or Los Angeles. Perhaps that's why local public broadcasting outlet WTTW ran into such a hailstorm of media criticism this summer when it announced a major format change for its long-running public affairs show Chicago Tonight. The old show "was always top-of-mind," says Tim Touhy, now a managing director with Hill & Knowlton, but also someone intimately familiar with Chicago Tonight dating back to the early 1990s, when he worked in local and state government. "Chicago Tonight has long been the preeminent public affairs show in Chicago." Now, though, it wants to be more, and PR people are waiting to see how they can pitch the new Chicago Tonight. "We need to take time to educate ourselves about the new segments of that program so we can educate our clients. I think that will happen very quickly," says Touhy. Mike Leiderman, the show's producer, says he's transforming Chicago Tonight from a public affairs show into an on-air newspaper. Aside from its old standby of a group of experts discussing an important news story each night, the show now also includes features on a variety of other topics. "It's going to have a feeling of, if you're looking for what people are talking about in Chicago, you should watch this show," he says. "We're going to be CBS Sunday Morning with a little more caffeine." The show has been expanded from 30 minutes to an hour each evening, and WTTW has brought in long-time Chicago media personality Bob Sirott to host. Sirott rose to fame as a Chicago DJ, but has since done TV stints on two local morning shows. His hiring for the new format - his first show aired November 11 - led local writers to accuse WTTW of dumbing down the show and moving away from its hard-news roots. Leiderman responds that the changes are designed to broaden the show's audience. That's something PBS stations didn't worry much about before cable, but in today's hyper-competitive media market, ratings and audience demographics are something WTTW has become painfully aware of. The show, on for 18 years (the first 15 of those with the same host), once garnered more than twice the ratings it had before the revamp. It was reaching only about 50,000 Chicago-area households, a 1.5% audience share, before the reformatting, Leiderman said. Worse, its viewership was aging rapidly, a worry for a public broadcast outlet constantly looking for new funding contributors. With the new format, "we're trying to get a demographic that isn't between 75 and deceased," Leiderman jokes. "The perception of our show is that it's Wilmette talking to Winnetka" (two suburbs North of the city on the Lake Michigan shoreline, both often viewed as stuffy and conservative). While it still has a nightly news-discussion segment, the show is adding a variety of new features. It will talk to a local business owner each night. Another new segment is called At Home With, which will interview Chicago celebrities in their homes - sometimes live, sometimes on tape. "We want to do something a little different from behind-the-desk interviews," Leiderman explains. Authors of new books will be interviewed only if they have a strong Chicago connection. "I don't want someone doing a tour of the morning shows. Give me a reason to put her on Chicago Tonight," he says. Another regular segment will look at famous moments from Chicago's broadcasting history, showing clips of old shows once done in the Windy City. Leiderman also hopes to have a live remote shot every night, and invites PR people to pitch him about such events as community festivals and other live events. Again, he warns against pitching things without a strong Chicago tie-in. "If M&M/Mars is holding a race, that's not necessarily for us," he says. So far, the new Chicago Tonight "reminds me of PBS does David Letterman," says Nick Kalm, a partner with Reputation Partners in Chicago. "It seems like a very muted version of the old Fox Thing in the Morning show," Sirott's last TV gig. Business clients wanted to be on the old Chicago Tonight because no other Chicago station gave them the same type of forum to speak on important topics, Kalm recalls. Neither he nor Touhy has clients clamoring to be on the new show just yet. "This is a little bit like going to a restaurant the first month it's open," Kalm jokes. But Leiderman wants Chicago to stop worrying about losing the old Chicago Tonight. The new show "is going to be what we had before, plus," he says. And that should mean plenty of new pitching opportunities. ------------ Contact list Chicago Tonight Address WTTW Channel 11, 5400 N. St. Louis, Chicago, IL 60625 Series producer Mike Leiderman, (773) 509-5367 Line producer Jessica Kaplan, (773) 509-5498 Producer Nicolette Ferri

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