The NBC Tower...

"Camelot to Sand Lot"

By Roger Lee Miller

General Electric purchased NBC from RCA in 1986. The mother station, WMAQ radio was sold to Westinghouse in February 1988. Later that year, WKQX (WMAQ-FM) was sold to Emmis. As planned before the sale, WMAQ-AM moved, with their namesake television station, to the NBC Tower in 1989.

GE named Bob Wright president of NBC. Wright was reported to say that he would eliminate half of the NBC staff. Bob Morse, WMAQ-TV General Manager, cut staff by 30 percent. Long time career employees were released, shows canceled.

Broadcasters and historians, I am quite certain, will associate RCA with the Merchandise Mart and GE with the NBC Tower.

After the move, there was still breath for one last Hurrah. Bob Morse decided to celebrate the Tower with a gala. Initially, the employees were not invited, but the department heads convinced Morse that ignoring the staff would be hard on moral, and would be poor public relations. So we had a two-day party on October 20 and 21, 1989!

And what a party it was with Doc Severinsen and the TONIGHT SHOW orchestra, Paul Shaffer at the mighty Wurlitzer and a gaggle of local celebrities, network stars and wannabees! Tom Brokaw introduced NBC President Bob Wright who cued the lighting of the Peacock high atop the Tower. The 11,600 square foot Studio A was filled with tables, chairs and the stage. Four movie size screens were set at the corners of this mammoth space. They were used to project nostalgic videotape pieces, and close circuit pictures of the show on the stage. The studio, located on the second floor, was nothing more than a vacant room. Lighting and audio had to be outboarded by our technicians and outside vendors. Just across the hall, Studio B was set up as a disco and bar. A makeshift control room was set up in the Mach I computer editing suite.

I was assigned to the Gala presentations, and what fun it was, directing this program with these wonderful musicians! During the rehearsal, Bob Wright's wife asked us to edit a tape Bill Cosby had recorded for the occasion. She said that some of Cosby's remarks made her husband look foolish. (At my suggestion, we recorded both nights' festivities. Later, Program Director David Finney screened the material and presented the idea of using it for a local special. Ken Hall, sales manager, said that he could sell the time. Finney received the OK from Severinsen's agent just two days before David was terminated. The project was aborted).

Curator's note: You may click here to watch a five minute video of the gala featuring Doc Severinsen and the "Tonight Show" Orchestra.

But, the party wasn't over. The following week, using the same studio, stage, lights, audio setup, tables and chairs, we telecast live, the 1989 Chicago Emmy Show. The Studio B control room was used, I was also assigned to this project, and may have the distinction of directing the first live entertainment from Studio A, and perhaps, the last one.

Studio A went into hibernation until 1991 when JENNY JONES became an alien resident. The control room was fitted with a switcher, audio board, graphics generator and videotape recorders. A was fitted with the state of the art cameras, lights and audio gear.

The studio cameras and lights, from the Mart, were installed in Studio B. SUNDAY CHRONICLES was one of the few local programs produced in this 5,000 square foot studio.

Dating back to the mid 1960s, each of Chicago's three major faith groups produced a thirty minute program every week. The time and facilities were supplied by the station. With the deregulation during the Reagan years, public access to cable, and General Electric's disregard for programs "in the public interest," the religious broadcasters were given one half hour, each week, to be rotated by the three faith groups. A religious show producer, working with program director Diana Borri, convinced Bob Morse to extend the time to one hour for an interfaith talk show. Using set pieces from the old WARNER show, we set up a show in the round. I brought Bob Hale back to be the host. SUNDAY CHRONICLES was produced from late 1990 to the Spring of 1992. Later that Fall, the station took the Saturday and Sunday morning time slots, used for public service and children's shows, and inaugurated early WEEK END NEWS. The once distinguished Program Department was eliminated. Directors and associate directors were transferred to the News Department. Studio B became home for the syndicated JERRY SPRINGER SHOW. WMAQ-TV was reduced to a television station without a television studio.

Bob Morse's predecessor, Dick Lobo, planned to construct the news set in Studio B. In fact, the architects were assured that the news would not originate from the News Room. However, following a decade old lead set by WBBM-TV, general manager Bob Morse decided that news programs would be telecast from the News Room on the first floor of the NBC Tower. (Ironically, WBBM-TV abandoned its tired format and returned the news to a studio setting.) The News Room then had to be rewired and rebuilt, at considerable expense, to accommodate the news set.

In spite of all the hyperbole about moving to a new "state of the art" facility, the truth of the matter is that much of the electronic and office furniture was moved from the Mart. The partitions that define working spaces in the News Room were just moved from the Mart. The significant exception was the introduction of robotic cameras in the news room.

Three cameras, from the Mart, were converted to robocams. A control unit was set on the second floor. The robo operator looking at the TV screens that represented the camera's output, and listening to the director's cues, sent the robotic cameras into position. For the most part, shooting a newscast is a simple thing. The limited movement of the robotics is not a handicap. However, once you add interviews and demonstrations, the robo operator cannot provide the flexibility, creative input and complimentary camera angles that a camera person can. The robotic cameras did not improve the product. They did eliminate more than six jobs.

WMAQ-TV hit bottom in June of 1990. The robotics operator was abolished on the early crew. Life size cut outs of the anchors were constructed by the stage hands. These "stand-ins" were placed in the set before the show, and the Technical Director composed and focused the cameras and locked them down. The TD then moved to the control room to his regular job of switching the program. Of course, the anchors had to constantly watch the monitors and position their bodies to the camera shot. There were embarrassing moments. A short guest sat in a shot composed for Warner Saunders, a former professional basketball player. I requested that my credits not be used on these programs. I started in Sioux City, Iowa, in the 1950's, and had never seen anything so chintzy. The metamorphosis from an owned and operated network center to a small town affiliate was complete.

Pat Wallace replaced Morse, on April 3, 1991, and prescribed chemotherapy. The direction was reversed. News programming was expanded into the early morning weekends and a new audience was uncovered. Employees were called back. However the new jobs were on a daily non-staff basis, without benefits.

There are many talented and good people at WMAQ-TV who make the station work in spite of the obstacles. In January of 1996 Carol Marin, Don Moseley and Wendy Frame re-confirmed Channel Five's long history of journalistic excellence with their stories of the pending execution and stay of Guinevere Garcia, and the Chicago politicians who were caught with their pockets open, in the Silver Shovel stories. I sent them this message: Thank you Wendy, Don, Carol, editors, videographers and all who toiled on these stories. You resurrected "one brief shinning moment [to a place] that was known as Camelot."

According to the GE 1995 Annual Report, "NBC enjoyed its most profitable year ever in 1995 and marked a third consecutive year of double-digit earning increases. Driving our success were gains in revenues and profits in the Television Network, NBC's owned and operated stations and CNBC."

Winning is all when you're playing sandlot.

Introduction and main index to this site
WMAQ radio history | "Amos 'n' Andy" | "Fibber McGee and Mollie" | "The Breakfast Club"
Dick Kay | Television at the Merchandise Mart | 1970 television facilities tour | Channel 5 turns 20
The "Chicago School" of television | "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" | Dave Garroway | Mary Hartline
"Lights Out" | Sound effects | 1930 studio tour | WLS | "Empire Builders" | Barry Bernson
Floyd Kalber | The Queen of Love and Beauty | "Today's Children" | Staff announcers | Carol Marin
Ron Magers | Studs Terkel l "Chicago Tonight" | Channel 5 News scrapbooks |Roger Miller recalls
Zoo Parade | Clifton and Frayne Utley | Val Press | Len O'Connor | Johnny Erp | Bill Ray | Daddy-O
Experimental Television: 1930-1933 | Bob Deservi | Kermit Slobb | Ding Dong School | Quiz Kids
Bob Lemon | The Korshak Chronicles | KYW: The Chicago Years | WENR | O.B. Hanson | Renzo
Jack Eigen | Ed Grennan | The World's Best Cup of Coffee | Glenn Webster | Mr. Piano | Hawkins Falls
Chicago Television for Kids |
Radio Hall of Fame |The NBC News Night Report: 23 February, 1967
Audio and video downloads
About the Curator

Comments or suggestions? click here to send them to Rich Samuels

Created by Rich Samuels (e-mail to