Jeanne Sparrow perks up new morning brew

November 17, 2009

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Jeanne Sparrow

The first thing you need to know about the new morning news show on WCIU-Channel 26 is that it's not really a show. The second thing is that it doesn't really have much news. But it is on in the morning -- and it's a devilishly clever work in progress.

"You & Me This Morning," now in its fourth week on the air, consists of locally produced informational segments ranging in length from 30 seconds to 15 minutes. The segments are sprinkled throughout the morning block of syndicated programming on "The U" (including "The Insider," "Everybody Hates Chris" and two episodes of "Half & Half") between 6 and 9 a.m. Monday through Friday.

The highly unorthodox format is designed to allow owner Weigel Broadcasting to sell commercials to advertisers who only want their spots to run in news programming. At the same time, it provides fresh content for Weigel's stations and website.

It's the latest brainchild of Neal Sabin, executive vice president of Weigel and the creative force behind "The U" and its pronoun-happy siblings "Me," Me-Too" and "This." Hailed in a recent Chicago magazine profile as a "nationally revered broadcasting impresario," the lifelong Chicagoan and programming wunderkind once again has found a way to take on the giant network-owned stations with a fraction of their resources. He's been doing it since he helped Newsweb Corp. create WPWR-Channel 50 out of thin air in 1983.

"What everyone has to understand is this is WCIU's first foray into daily local production of this type," Sabin said of his morning offering. "We've brought some new people in, and we're in the learning and training process with some of our other employees. You're going to see a lot of growth. It will look very, very different three months from now and six months from now and a year from now as it grows and matures."

What Sabin loves about "You & Me This Morning" -- for good reason -- is its warm and engaging host, Jeanne Sparrow. A veteran of NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 (where she doubled as entertainment and traffic reporter on the morning show) and Clear Channel urban contemporary WGCI-FM (107.5), Sparrow is the ideal personality to appeal to the show's target audience, which skews heavily toward urban females. (During one quarter-hour last Friday, Sparrow drew more women between the ages of 25 and 54 than CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2, Tribune Co.-owned WGN-Channel 9 or Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32.)

From her comfortable kitchen and living room sets, Sparrow delivers frequent weather forecasts and introduces lifestyle and entertainment reports from a growing stable of contributors (including experts on everything from fashion and home decorating to child rearing and relationships). The daily horoscope predictions strike me as ridiculous, but they no doubt have a following, too.

For now, breaking news seems to be the weakest part of the equation. Relying solely on headlines from the Sun-Times and video from CNN, "You & Me" simply isn't equipped to deliver the goods. On Monday, hours after the body of Chicago School Board President Michael Scott was found floating in the Chicago River, there wasn't one word about it in any of Sparrow's news updates.

Nevertheless, reaction among viewers has been positive, Sabin reports, except from those who objected to constant interruptions in the sitcoms. To placate them, the schedule was adjusted this week so that Sparrow's longer segments air only between other shows -- not in the middle of them.

"So far, I'm very happy with initially getting it on the air, getting Jeanne in place, and the stable of experts and personalities that we're developing," Sabin added. "They're coming together real nicely."

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