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