Ebert & Roeper flap reaches critical mass

November 30, 2009

I never imagined that something I wrote would cause a painful public rift between two of Chicago's most prominent media luminaries (who also happen to be two of the colleagues I respect and admire most in the world). Honest, I didn't.


Ebert and Roeper on the Tonight Show

It all started last Tuesday when I reported here that Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper had signed a new deal to review movies on his website and on Starz, the subscription movie channel. It marked the long-awaited return to the business that Richard had mastered for eight years on "Ebert & Roeper."

The next day Roger Ebert posted a blog in which he shared his thoughts "about television and movie critics, myself, and the past, present and future of my corner of the critics-on-TV adventure." The piece is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in Roger or the groundbreaking programming genre he created with the late Gene Siskel. Most fascinating were some never-disclosed-before details about Roger's split with Walt Disney Co. and his efforts to launch a new show.

At the end of the piece, Roger focused on a particular comment Richard had made to me about the Starz deal. Roger wrote:

"I confess I felt a twinge that Rob Feder's column quoted you: 'As much as I loved doing "Ebert & Roeper," this will have much more of an unfiltered, uncut, viral feel. As someone at Starz put it, they wanted "Roeper uncut." If a film is a piece of shit, I'll say it's apiece of shit.' Richard, were you not uncut at 'E&R'? Did you never say a movie was 'a piece of shit?' "

Just to make sure I was not misinterpreting Roger's message, I asked him if he felt betrayed by Richard's comments. "He implied he was not 'uncut' on 'Ebert & Roeper,' " Roger responded to me. "What did he mean by that?"

I knew that Richard intended no offense to Roger. It was clear to me that all he meant was that he could cut loose on the Internet in a way he never could on a Disney show. But I also understood what Roger had read into Richard's choice of words.

On Friday, Richard posted a lengthy clarification on his blog about what he said to me -- and what he really meant.‚ Richard wrote:

"It was not my intention to disparage the amazing experience I had as Roger's co-host, or to imply I was creatively stifled. . . . From the first time I sat in the balcony, Roger always encouraged me to speak freely and be myself -- and he was exceedingly generous about giving me equal time every time we discussed a movie.
"However, during my first couple of years on the show and then again at the very end of my run, I did have some behind-the-scenes 'creative differences' (as they say) with producers. I probably should have clarified to Rob that that's what I was thinking about when I said 'uncut, unfiltered,' blah blah blah. But on the air, with Roger -- I was absolutely encouraged to be myself and to express myself in my own way. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise with a clumsy and cryptic quote.
"The other factor that played into my comments is the delivery system I'll be using. With these reviews airing on premium cable and on the Internet as opposed to broadcast television, I will have more freedom in terms of language. . . . When I said 'uncut, unfiltered,' etc., I just meant I'll be delivering the reviews in a casual setting, in a conversational tone."

Richard's explanation must have seemed entirely reasonable to Roger, who immediately linked to it on Twitter with the message: "Richard Roeper blogs on his Starz & Web plan, says what he meant by now being 'uncut.' Well said, Rich."

To which Richard tweeted: "Thank you sir!"

Unfortunately, the matter didn't end there. By Saturday, the misunderstanding had taken on a life of its own. Hundreds of readers were writing in to Roger's and Richard's blogs, many of them taking sides in a nonexistent battle. ChicagoNow blogger Bruce Wolf cracked wise about it on Tribune Co.-owned news/talk WGN-AM (720). It even resulted in a news story on WMAQ-Channel 5's 5 p.m. newscast and a piece on the NBC-owned station's website headlined: "Ebert Gives Roeper Comment Thumbs Down." That piece, which also ran on other NBC websites, unfairly and inaccurately labeled Richard as an "infamous Chicago Sun-Times movie reviewer." (Infamous? I hardly think so.)

OK, enough already. The balcony is closed.

Categories