Reality television finds a home at Cook County Jail

December 23, 2009

countyjail

All of a sudden, everybody's trying to break in to Cook County Jail. For the second time in as many months, a cable network television series is originating from the Chicago complex described in a press release as "the largest single-site jail facility in the United States." (Occupancy: nearly 10,000.)

At 9 p.m. on Jan. 1, MSNBC will premiere "The Squeeze," a new crime series that follows the work of the Criminal Intelligence Unit of the Cook County Sheriff's Department and explores the gang culture inside and outside of Cook County Jail. (Judging by its weekend and late-night lineups, MSNBC obviously has a thing for prison reality shows.) It's the first of three one-hour episodes produced by 20 West Productions, the new documentary unit of Charlie Besser's Chicago-based Intersport Inc. The company derives the name from its address at 20 W. Kinzie.

If the concept sounds vaguely familiar, that's because the Discovery Channel beat MSNBC to the punch with "Cook County Jail," an acclaimed three-part documentary series by Towers Productions, that focused on dangers inside the jail ranging from gang violence to mental illness among inmates. That series debuted Nov. 19.‚ Several of 20 West's key staffers are expatriates from Towers, the gold standard of the business. In 2007, Towers also produced MSNBC's first Chicago documentary project, an episode of the series "Runaways."

Both of the jail series were shot under the shrewd statesmanship of Steve Patterson, a former Sun-Times reporter who became director of communications for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and practically transformed his boss into a national media folk hero.

Click here for the link to a video clip and an interview with Steven Carroll, series producer of "The Squeeze," from "Eight Forty-Eight" on Chicago Public Radio WBEZ-FM (91.5).

Elsewhere on the media beat:

 

  • Despite assurances from NextMedia Group that its bankruptcy filing Monday would have no impact on day-to-day operations, Inside Radio reports the company likely will be forced to sell two of its nine stations in the Chicago area. The change in control of the company is expected to trigger FCC enforcement of its ownership limits. Until now, NextMedia's seven FMs and two AMs had been grandfathered in over the limit.‚  (The legal cap is five FMs.)
  • Signing off Tuesday after 12 years as a daily contributor to news/talk WLS-AM (890), Ron Magers told afternoon host Roe Conn he was "sad to go away," adding: "These are tough times in radio. You'll survive them. You're a very talented guy, and you've got talented people around you. You'll work your way out of this thing." Magers' contract was not renewed by financially troubled parent company Citadel Broadcasting. He continues as primary news anchor at top-rated ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7.
  • Changes are coming in the New Year to "Eight Forty-Eight," the weekday morning newsmagazine show on Chicago Public Radio WBEZ-FM (91.5), currently co-hosted by Richard Steele and Alison Cuddy. Plans are in the works to name one full-time permanent host. In conjunction with the revamping, "Eight Forty-Eight" will be on hiatus the week of Jan. 4. Full disclosure: Chicago Public Radio is the parent company of Vocalo.org -- and my employer.
  • Chicago broadcast legend Clark Weber, one of radio's all-time class acts, will recite his traditional "A Cup of Christmas Tea" as part of a lineup of holiday specials Thursday and Friday on CRIS Radio, the audio reading service of the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired. Other highlights include the Chicago Actors Studio's "A Christmas Carol" and Bill Jurek's "A Country Christmas." Listen live at www.chicagolighthouse.org.
  • From Denver comes a special holiday message from beloved former WLS talk show host Jay Marvin, who's still in rehab after undergoing major surgery in August. (A life-threatening, massive infection attacked his spinal column. And that was just for starters.) "Please tell all the many people in Chicago who have not forgotten me and have hung through my illness with me: "ËœHappy Holidays,' " Marvin wrote. "Hope to be better in the New Year."
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