Wayback machine only goes so far for Bill & Walter

November 16, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, the winner and still champion is  . . . Ron Magers.

Despite all the excitement and publicity surrounding the return of Bill Kurtis, 69, and Walter Jacobson, 72, to the anchor desk for the first time in 20 years at WBBM-Channel 2, the best the CBS-owned station could do Friday night was finish a close second in the ratings at 10 p.m. to ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7.

To their credit, Bill & Walter never made any sweeping claims of toppling the market leader. In an interview Friday afternoon with Roe Conn, Kurtis even tipped his hat to Magers and Channel 7, calling them "the Mount Everest of TV news." Everest still stands.

It was, nevertheless, an unforgettable and uniquely Chicago event. Kurtis set the mood right off the bat, telling viewers: "No need to change the dial. Just turn your clocks back 20 years and hang on." And in his "Perspective" commentary, Jacobson proved as ornery as ever, taking on Rich Daley for doing "dumb things" and predicting that he might not be occupying City Hall much longer. (Earlier in the week, Chicago Current editor Geoff Dougherty reached a similar conclusion but supported it with more transparent sourcing.)

Not surprisingly, the mayor couldn't resist firing back at Skippy the next day, telling reporters: "Listen, I'm still here and he's been out of Channel 2 for a long time. Like anything else, he needs publicity and Channel 2 needs help. I don't know if he's helping them." Then Daley added: "Bill Kurtis is alright."

Fortunately for Channel 2, Friday turned out to be an exceedingly slow news night, allowing for maximum nostalgia about Bill & Walter and the bygone era they personified. "It didn't feel like I was watching the news," one nonplussed colleague confided. "I was watching them." But many more seemed to echo Dean Richards' sentiments: "It was a study in the way things should be done."

It also made for a few awkward moments on the set. At the end of his report, Jay Levine presented Jacobson with a copy of the city budget and Kurtis with an Internet card, making a direct reference to his commercial career. At least they didn't have AT&T sponsor the whole thing. And octogenarian Harry Porterfield showed up with a "Someone You Should Know" piece about a street magician that he recycled from last April when he was still employed at Channel 7. Talk about sleight of hand.

Throughout the newscast, some of Chicago's sharpest media observers were sharing instant reactions on Twitter. Tweeted Roger Ebert: "WBBM/2 Bill & Walter reunion. In background of street magician interview, big labor union ad on bus: "Channel 5 is Bad News.' "And from Time Out Chicago editor-in-chief Frank Sennett: "How did we do without Walter's perspective all these years? Some things are better left in memory banks . . ." and "Kurtis sez old pic of Baskerville looks like "Snoop Doggy Dog as a child.' And then a blooper reel. All we're missing is Dom DeLuise laughing."

Of course, if thousands of Chicagoans are still so gaga over Bill & Walter, it begs the question: Why did the legendary duo split up in the first place? For one thing, by 1989, Channel 2 had been trailing Channel 7 in the ratings at 10 p.m. for three years. But more importantly, Channel 2 bosses were under intense pressure to diversify their white male front line. (Enter Linda MacLennan.) As miserable as Jacobson felt about breaking up with Kurtis, he told me at the time: "Things have to change. We must have a "strong female presence' on our news. It's just the right thing to do. I agree with the decision."

For the record, Jacobson continued to deliver his "Perspectives" on the 10 p.m. newscast and to co-anchor with Kurtis at 5 p.m. for several more years. But in 1993, he skipped to Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32. Kurtis quit Channel 2 in 1995.

In the end, Friday night was all about Bill & Walter coming back to take a bow (think Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough inviting Blackhawks icons Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita to skate around the ice) and bestowing their imprimatur on young Rob Johnson (in absentia) and the current regime at Channel 2. It's no coincidence that one of the first mentors Johnson courted when he got the job was Kurtis.

Will any of it make a difference to Channel 2 in the long run? No more than hearing the voice of Walter Cronkite from beyond the grave introduce Katie Couric each night makes a difference to "The CBS Evening News." In other words, not so much. Two other weekend highlights:

  • Bill Leff managed to keep a potential train wreck on track in the abbreviated debut of "ChicagoNow Radio" Saturday on news/talk WGN-AM (720). The handful of bloggers he interviewed ranged from "Etiquette Bitch" Marianna Swallow to "CTA Tattler" Kevin O'Neil. Not once did Leff mention that both WGN and ChicagoNow.com are owned by Tribune Co. But at least it didn't come off sounding like one giant infomercial.
  • At midnight Friday, WLIT-FM (93.9) flipped the switch on its adult-contemporary format and turned into an all-Christmas music outlet. Premature as it seems, the Nov. 13 kickoff was far from the earliest for the Clear Channel station. In 2006 and 2007, "Lite FM" turned on "The Holiday Lite" just two days after Halloween -- on Nov. 2.

 

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