Ebert's new movie show flashes back to earlier era

September 13, 2010

The triumphal announcement Friday of "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies" will put WTTW-Channel 11 back in the movie-review business for the first time since 1996, when the public television station officially ceased production of "Sneak Previews," then hosted by Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved.

In all honesty, though, "Sneak Previews" never was the same after 1982 when Ebert and the late Gene Siskel left Channel 11's nonprofit parent Window to the World Communications (where they'd started the show locally as "Opening Soon at a Theatre Near You" in 1975) and jumped to Tribune Entertainment to launch "At the Movies" in commercial syndication. From there they moved to Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Television in 1986.

The economics of syndication and a brilliant lawyer named Don Ephraim made millionaires of Ebert and Siskel, catapulting them to heights they never could have achieved if they'd remained in the penny-pinching clutches of PBS and its affiliates with all their tote bags and coffee mugs and pledge nights.

So here we are nearly three decades later with no place in syndication or network television for a serious show about movies -- and with Ebert coming back to where it all began: "I believe that by returning to its public television roots, our new show will win better and more consistent time slots in more markets," he said. "American television is swamped by mindless gossip about celebrities, and I'm happy this show will continue to tell viewers honestly if the critics think a new movie is worth seeing."

Ebert's crucial but limited role on the new show will be a throwback to an even earlier era in television --  when stars like Alfred Hitchcock, Walt Disney, Loretta Young and Rod Serling "presented" their weekly series to viewers but left it to others to carry out most of the actual performance duties. In Ebert's case, owing to his health problems, he'll use a computer-generated voice to appear in a weekly feature segment called "Roger's Office." But that will be the extent of his presence on the air.

A much bigger challenge for the show will be whether viewers accept critics Christie Lemire of The Associated Press and Elvis Mitchell of National Public Radio as its principal co-hosts. They'll be the ones reviewing the new releases and wielding their thumbs -- up or down -- each week. Other regular contributors will be West Coast film bloggers Kim Morgan and Omar Moore. "The prospect of watching Critics Who Are Not Roger Ebert debating current releases as he once did with the late Gene Siskel doesn't excite me much," Phil Rosenthal wrote in his Sunday Tribune column.

Friday's announcement left unanswered a number of important questions, including who will pay for the show (underwriters and sponsors are still being sought), where it will be produced (studio locations in Chicago are being scouted), or when it will air on Channel 11 and elsewhere around the country. Presumably those answers will be known well before "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies" debuts in January.

Other than Ebert himself, the most important person in the equation is his amazingly devoted and determined wife, Chaz, who overcame enormous odds to get the deal done with WTTW National Productions. She will serve with him as producer of the half-hour weekly series and oversee all aspects of the operation.

The Eberts timed their announcement Friday to coincide with the Toronto Film Festival, which they were attending together. Although it meant the news got lost in Saturday editions of most newspapers (including Roger's own Sun-Times), it did send "a nice little ripple" through the corridors of the festival, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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