When the longest-running program in Chicago television history gets canceled, that's a shame. But when the show that replaces it is a worthless piece of crap, that's a crime.
Earlier this year, WMAQ-Channel 5 pulled the plug on "City Desk," the Sunday morning newsmaker interview show. Modeled after NBC's "Meet the Press," it had been airing in one form or another since 1952, featuring such esteemed panelists as John Chancellor, Len O'Connor, John Drieske, Jim Ruddle and Dick Kay. Most recently it was hosted by Carol Marin and Mary Ann Ahern as an extended segment on the Sunday morning news.
Never mind that "City Desk" was the last place on Channel 5 where serious issues and tough questions could be discussed in depth with public officials, political candidates and other newsmakers. And never mind that it was the last vestige of original programming from the NBC-owned station's glorious past as a crucible of the so-called Chicago School of Television.
"In this tough business climate, we must redirect our energies and resources to areas of highest impact and growth," Frank Whittaker, vice president of news and station manager at Channel 5, explained at the time both "City Desk" and the newscast in which it aired were eliminated.
So what did we get in its place? A fluffy, frothy concoction called "The Talk." Airing at 7:30 a.m. Sundays, it's a 30-minute hodgepodge of whatever the newsroom can throw together -- a roundup of world, national and local headlines seemingly chosen at random, taped pieces lifted from the previous week's newscasts, truncated interviews, in-studio chitchat with Channel 5 reporters, celebrity gossip, and shameless plugs for NBC programming and syndicated shows that run on the station.
I've seen almost every episode of "The Talk" since it debuted, and I still don't get the point.
The only good thing about the show is the host.
Marion Brooks, who anchors Channel 5's 4:30 p.m. weekday newscast, is a natural when it comes to fronting a talk show. A winning personality, she's bright, energetic and thoroughly engaging. Whether she's talking about mortgage lending practices or the romantic entanglements of Jon & Kate, Brooks comes off as confident, sincere and genuinely interested.
In fact, I would argue that she's better in a talk show environment than on a traditional newscast, where her tendency to editorialize after every story can be grating. But on "The Talk," even when she goes all Oprah on us, it's OK: "We're glad that you're healthy and out," Brooks told a Chicago teen who'd been wrongly arrested for the fatal beating of Fenger High School student Derrion Albert. "And good luck with the recovery, because it's gonna take some time for an emotional recovery. So I'm glad that you all have each other." At least she didn't give the boy and his mother a hug.
As charming as she is, though, Brooks is hampered by a horrible format and a ridiculous taping regimen. Because the show is recorded two days before it airs, what passes for news on "The Talk" often is outdated. On one show last month, Brooks was seen telling viewers "thank goodness" the Colorado Balloon Boy had been found safe at home, and adding that "investigators say they don't believe it was a hoax" -- more than 12 hours after police announced they were filing charges against the family.
It's no real surprise that Channel 5 would turn its back on its heritage as an enterprise responsible for creating entire genres of programming on shoestring budgets -- from "Garroway at Large" and "Studs' Place" to "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" and "Ding Dong School." As far as I recall, current management never even issued a press release or ran a single promo to acknowledge the station's 50th anniversary in 1998 or its 60th‚ last year.
Nevertheless, it's sad to think that an institution once renowned throughout the world for innovation and creativity in local programming would so easily abandon the nearly 60-year legacy of "City Desk" for the mediocrity of‚ "The Talk."
With the impending takeover of NBC Universal by cable giant Comcast Corp., the Peacock Network is destined to stray even farther from its roots. "Without NBC, there wouldn't be broadcasting as we know it," Chicago media sage and scholar Wally Podrazik said the other day. By the same token, without the pioneering contributions of WMAQ-TV, there wouldn't be an NBC as we know it. But in both cases, all that's left are faded memories.