By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
Roger Ebert was the Chicago Sun-Times movie critic in 1975, newly honored with the Pulitzer Prize. Gene Siskel was his Chicago Tribune counterpart, and also reviewed movies on the local CBS affiliate, WBBM-TV. A year earlier, the duo had done a pilot for a show in which they reviewed films, and it had not even aired. Now Thea Flaum, a producer with the local PBS station, WTTW-TV, was calling them and suggesting they try the concept anew.
The three got together for a meeting, and everything clicked.
“We came up with it all then,” said Ms. Flaum, who now has her own Chicago-based production company. “The balcony, the idea of just two guys arguing about movies the way the public might with a friend. I had to sell them on the notion of wearing sweaters. They thought they should wear jackets and ties befitting film critics, but we wanted them to dress as people did when they actually went to the movies, and they agreed.”
The series, with the gangling title “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” premiered in September 1975 as a monthly show and almost overnight was picked up by most of the PBS stations nationwide. Renamed “Sneak Previews,” it won a local Emmy in 1979. Syndicators came knocking, wanting to take it to commercial television.
“Roger and Gene sat in my office just as you might see them on TV and debated all angles,” said Don Ephraim, their agent at the time, who is with Mr. Ebert to this day. “They were concerned that commercial TV might damage the integrity of the concept, and also about how commercial breaks would affect the flow. We worked that all out and made a deal with Tribune Entertainment.”
From 1981 to 1986, Tribune was the distributor of the renamed “At the Movies.” After a contractual dispute, the duo moved to Buena Vista Television in 1986, becoming that company’s inaugural first-run effort. The name was changed again, first to “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies,” and then to just “Siskel & Ebert.” The order of their names had been determined by a coin toss.
Though Disney is the parent company of Buena Vista, Mr. Ephraim noted that contractually Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert had control over the content of the reviews. That rule was sacrosanct, as it still is for Mr. Ebert and Richard Roeper, who joined the show in 2000 after Mr. Siskel’s death in 1999.
Through the years, while the basic structure of the show has remained, there have been additions, such as reviews of DVDs, video picks, discussions of new technologies and theme shows.
Currently “Ebert & Roeper” is sold on a barter basis and has a 97 percent market reach. Its status as one of the few weekly half-hour first-run shows is a plus for sales, said Buena Vista TV President Janice Marinelli.
“It’s the only show of its kind out there,” Ms. Marinelli said. “Plus, 90 percent of the stations are ABC affiliates, and it’s a highly compatible companion to the local news shows. Advertisers love it too, because it offers a specific audience they can’t reach so contained elsewhere-people who go to the movies.”
Ms. Marinelli said she does not anticipate any major shifts in the show, either creatively or from a marketing standpoint.
“We play with possible changes such as perhaps getting more eyeballs with cable runs,” she said. “But Roger and Richard are highly protective of the brand, and we’re respectful of it as well. There’s no reason it can’t go on for another 30 years or more.”