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TV Managers of the Year: WLS, Chicago

Apr 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

WLS-TV, recipient of TelevisionWeek’s TV Managers of the Year award for the Midwest region, serves the third-largest market area in the country, encompassing the greater Chicago area and extending north to parts of Wisconsin and Michigan.
The station broadcasts 33 hours of news a week, garnering the most viewers for its nightly news at 10. The station “does a mix of local, national and international,” said News Director Jennifer Graves, adding, “We often have a local connection to the international news, so we try to use that when we can.”
“We have for many years tried to serve the community very diligently in the way we cover news and set up local programming, and we’ve worked carefully to cover those things that are
important to our viewers,” said General Manager Emily Barr, noting one of WLS’ strengths is “a great bench. We have a lot of people both on-air and behind the scenes who are deeply committed to the Chicago area and the television station, and they’ve amassed a lot of knowledge they can use every day.”
Flight Training
As an example, she noted the station has had several on-air people who were pilots, so “if a plane goes down, they can add their experience and knowledge to better inform the viewers.”
Ms. Graves added that the newsroom staffers “both behind the scenes and on-air are full of experience and committed to Chicago.”
“They’re the reason we have a consistent product,” she said. “Viewers have grown to respect and trust us to deliver on big local stories.”
In spite of awards and big ratings wins, Ms. Barr noted, “You never rest on your laurels. You’re always looking for new ways to expand the venues, whether it’s the Web site or ‘ABC7 to Go’ for cell phones.
“We’re always looking at alternative channels,” she said, “looking at the technical parameters to push the envelope as much as we can, so people can find us anywhere.”
The station, an ABC O&O that broadcasts from the North State Street studio in the Chicago Loop, still transmits its signal from the Sears Tower. It was the first in the Chicago market to go hi-def.
WLS also launched the career of comedian Bob Newhart, and in the early 1980s brought a young host aboard for “AM Chicago,” a talk show that now broadcasts from Chicago as “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” And the station still adheres to a strong policy of local programming.
Ellen Crawley, vice president of program acquisitions and research, was clear about that. “We’re very local,” she said, “more than any other Chicago station. We do a local lifestyle and event program, ‘190 North,’ and a weekly, public affairs-driven half-hour where we deal with issues like homelessness and racism.”
The station also produces a quarterly show that covers “achievements in the Hispanic market in Chicago, and another on achievements in the local African American community.”
“Chicago is a fabulous news town,” Ms. Barr said. “People love their news, they love their politics.
“The ‘Windy City’ doesn’t refer to the weather,” she noted. “It refers to politics, those long-winded politicians back in the day.
“Much like it’s a great sports town, it’s also a great news town. People here have a voracious appetite for news,” She said. But even with that in mind, “You have to go beyond the news of the day to see what else people are interested in.”
Building Community
Following up on “a spate of shootings of young kids en route to public schools” Ms. Barr and her staff brought together ministers, police officers, parents and community leaders for an ongoing half-hour, commercial-free public forum called “Stop the Violence.”
“We air those without commercials,” said Ms. Graves, adding that the killings were ongoing. There was, she said, “a defining moment where a gunman opened fire on a city transit bus, and one kid threw himself across his friend to save that friend’s life. His killing became a symbolic moment to rally people. It’s a complex issue, and we’re proud we’ve been able to go beyond our news coverage to try and help.”
“We all live here, too,” Ms. Barr said, “and it’s just as important for us to make sure everyone is safe.”
She noted the station also covers “an amazing number of parades. There’s one for the Polish constitution. There’s the Mexican Independence Day Parade, the Gay Pride parade and of course the St. Patrick’s Day Parade (and yes, they really dye the Chicago River green).”
“It’s all geared toward the community we serve: a Midwestern market,” Ms. Crawley said. “Things that appeal to our audience.”
The station’s commitment to the future, Ms. Barr said, might be “as simple as making sure we continue to serve the community by covering what viewers are attracted to and interested in. We need to make sure we’re there at events, both large and small, that impact that.
“We want to serve this area. People from the Midwest—there’s a kind of pride about being from the heartland. It’s solid bedrock.”
WLS also is known for its airing of commercial-free political debates, both local and national, and has been doing so for close to two decades. “We aired the Illinois Senate debates 10 or 11 years ago,” Ms. Graves said, “when Barrack Obama was running for the Illinois State Senate.
[Sen. Obama served in that capacity from 1997-2004 before running for the U.S. Senate.] We do national government and local government.
“We expanded that to our Web site on Super-Duper Tuesday in February,” she added. “We invited candidates to submit their own 5-minute campaign films to tell our Web site users what they were all about, and we had links to [the candidates’] campaign pages.
“We’ve made it our mission to serve our viewers,” Ms. Graves said, “to inform and educate, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

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