Chicago television through time

By Luke Wilusz

In the early days of the medium, long before reality stars and drama queens held sway, the world of television was remarkably different. The good guys always won, the bad guys always lost, and the main characters or celebrity hosts always wore a broad grin as they cheerfully pitched the “keen corn flavor of Kix” or “the sheer horsepower and value of a brand-new DeSoto,” to a wholesome home audience at the end of the episode. In those days, shows were longer, commercial breaks lasted no more than 60 seconds and the Chicago market was the leading producer of content in the industry.

The Chicago History Museum, in collaboration with the Museum of Broadcast Communications, held a month long series of events called “Chicago Television” throughout November to examine the history and development of the medium and the ways Chicago influenced and affected it. The series included lectures, tours of the city’s TV studios and screenings of “Net Nites,” which recreate what a typical evening or afternoon of programming looked like in a given year.

Liz Garibay, public programs manager at the Chicago History Museum, said she originally intended to invite local TV experts to speak for a lecture series the museum hosts every fall and spring, but the idea soon evolved into a larger project.

“I realized it could be a great lecture series and a great bus tour, and when I heard about ‘Net Nites,’ I just figured it could be a great month of TV events,” Garibay said.

“Net Nites” was created by Steve Jajkowski—local TV historian and co-editor of the book “Chicago Television” with Daniel Berger—in an attempt to preserve classic content in its original format.

“I started putting these tapes together, which I dubbed ‘Net Nites,’ and recreating how network television was in its first two decades because it was considerably different than it is now,” Jajkowski said. “I’ll let you in on a little secret—there’s a lot of commercials on TV now. Back then, it was quite different. There were still commercials, of course, but commercial breaks were one minute, in between shows.”

He said a typical half hour TV show from the ’50s or ’60s was about 26 minutes long without commercials, compared to an average of 18 to 20 minutes today.

“I realized there was a part of TV’s past that could never be recreated again live on television,” Jajkowski said. “And that’s because TV is a business. When they start rerunning some of these old shows, these shows had to be cut because of time constraints.”

Garibay said in addition to showing patrons what TV used to be like, one of the goals of the series was to let people know the influence Chicago had on the medium’s growth.

“I really don’t think people know what a pivotal role Chicago played,” Garibay said. “I think people are familiar with WGN and maybe “The Bozo Show” and maybe a couple of other things here, but I don’t think they realize Chicago was such an important player in TV history. It’s always great to kind of highlight our town when we can.”

Jajkowski said the Chicago School of Television in the late ’40s and early ’50s set the standard for producing quality content from limited resources.

“The talent—the directors, producers, writers—would take very little and make something out of it,” Jajkowski said. “They didn’t have large budgets back then. They’d give you $10,000 and they want to see a production that looks like $20,000 or $100,000. You had to be quick and innovative, and this is what the Chicago television method had produced.”

According to Jajkowski, some notable shows to come out of Chicago and get national syndication in the ’40s and ’50s included “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” a puppet-centric show, and “Polka-Go-Round,” a program focused on polka music.

He said Chicago’s influence on the industry declined when local stations nationwide were united by national networks. Technological advancements allowed them to broadcast simultaneously from coast to coast, and television production shifted primarily to Los Angeles and New York. This consolidation of stations into national networks brought with it a decrease in regionally-broadcast, locally-produced content.

Berger said one reason the TV industry developed this way was because it was following the groundwork laid before it by the radio industry.

“The early TV networks copied radio,” Berger said. “And radio developed a network system where there’s a big umbrella corporation or entity that controls its affiliates throughout the country. So TV adopted that, and because of that, [the networks] controlled the schedule more and more as time went on, whereas early on TV stations were either independent—or the networks hadn’t provided content to fill a schedule—so they had more freedom in what they put on the air. It’s always been about generating revenue, and the networks made more money by controlling the content.”

This network-centric model for TV has been the standard for decades, and local programming has typically been limited to not much more than news and sports broadcasts. However, Television Department Chair Michael Niederman said there is still a thriving broadcast production community in Chicago.

“I think it looks better today than it did, let’s say, five years ago,” Niederman said. “There have been typical historic swings in terms of production stuff in the city. We go through phases where shows come to town and produce and are around, and then they leave. But the truth is I think there is starting to be more stuff going on, more shows being produced, it’s just what has happened is the definition of shows has changed.”

According to Niederman, advances in technology and changes in the way people consume programming has shifted a lot of the focus away from traditional broadcast television. He referred to the recent “Sears Chef Challenge” Columbia television students worked on as an example of this.

“That’s something that wouldn’t have existed five years ago, the notion of a single manufacturer or brand producing a show,” Niederman said. “It was a classic TV formula produced for the Internet, and that’s kind of where we’re heading. All sorts of things are coming up again, it’s just they aren’t necessarily aimed at being produced for broadcast TV. They could be for mobile, they could be for Internet, they could be for all sorts of things.”

The television medium has come a long way since its humble black and white beginnings, and with services such as Netflix, YouTube and Hulu changing the way people consume media, it seems there are even more drastic changes in store. However, Niederman said he believes such changes can be good for the industry and he looks forward to them.

“I see a lot of chaos in the future, but chaos isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Niederman said. “Out of chaos often comes energy and excitement. To me, TV is going through a process of figuring out what it’s supposed to be again, and some really wonderful things could potentially come out of it.”