Is Chicago Hollywood on the lake? Or the Great White Way? Or...something?

March 13, 2012

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When it comes to having a burgeoning television industry, sometimes it feels like Chicago's on a bit of a rollercoaster. As quickly as The Rosie Show said goodbye to us and the future of OWN seemed precarious, Steve Harvey said he'd be coming to save the day.

And that’s just the talk shows. In the coming weeks, several new shows and second seasons will start filming, because it's our version of pilot season! Boss is back, after it was renewed almost immediately by Starz. Chicago Fire, a new show from Law and Order creator Dick Wolf, will film its pilot in the next few weeks. There's also the "Untitled Sony Pictures Television Pilot," a medical show starring Jordana Spiro (she was last seen in another Chicago-wannabe sitcom, My Boys). And last is MTV's Underemployed, (which has had its own set of controversies) from Craig Wright, who has been a part of shows like Dirty Sexy Money, Six Feet Under and Lost, and is an ensemble member of A Red Orchid Theater.

But all of that excitement is dampened by the memory of highly-touted (or at least highly publicized) shows like NBC's The Playboy Club essentially crashing and burning last year. "Is it a moral killer? Yeah," said the Chicago Tribune's Nina Metz when we talked to her before the show. But the city still made money off of it, about the financial equivalent of a film shooting here.

Betsy Steinberg, managing director of the Illinois Film Office, says that it's a highly volatile business, whether you're in Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. She cited FOX's The Chicago Code, whose cancellation disappointed many (just look at the comments on this article), and came as a surprise to industry insiders, given the track record of creator Shawn Ryan on shows like The Shield. But Steinberg will admit that because of that smaller market, “You feel it more [when a show doesn’t get picked up in Chicago] than either L.A. and New York.”

Producers like Ruth Ratny, who runs the industry website Reel Chicago, believe the city should be doing more to get the revenue in and build the industry here. On some level, Chicago is facing an uphill battle: Shows like Showtime's Shameless film part-time here, but as Ratny points out, they do mostly exterior shots because "actors don't want to uproot their families. And you can't blame them."

And then there's all the sitcoms that frustrate local fans because they get all the details wrong; Happy Endings, Whitney, Mike & Molly all seem to have picked Chicago because the creators were looking for an alternative to L.A. and New York, and we're a good alternative. Sitcoms will always shoot in L.A., because it's a more "efficient factory system," Metz explained. Unless, of course, there is "a star with enough leverage to force it" to be filmed elsewhere.

But no matter whether a show does well or not, the same production companies do continue to come back to Chicago. "FOX isn’t not interested in putting shows here because one of their shows did badly," said Metz about a show like Chicago Code. Metz, Ratny and Steinberg will join Steve Edwards on Afternoon Shift to discuss this season in television and how Chicago is doing as far as getting television in as a dependable revenue stream.

Of course, the future of the industry might be where we don't even recognize it. Some of the more established documentary houses are here, like Kartemquin and Towers Productions. (In fact, Kartemquin specifically asked us not to forget docs in this discussion. Noted.) But documentaries and less-popular reality shows aren't exactly bringing big money to any one, whether they're in Chicago or not. And time will tell if projects like the pilot being developed by HBO for online streaming will take off as a way for everyone to spend a little money and make a lot. Who knows, though: Television might make Chicago the new Great White Way...or something.