As WGN TV celebrates 75 years, we’re looking back with a series of stories on the history and the memories.
By the 1970s, the era of total dominance by the big three national networks – CBS, ABC, and NBC — was coming to an end, and TV audiences would soon have more choices.
In 1970, just 4.5 million people subscribed to cable. By the end of the decade, that number more than tripled. Cable held enormous potential, but it didn’t yet have many programs.
“In the very beginnings of cable TV, they were looking for programming,” said Steve Novak, a longtime producer and director at WGN-TV. “There weren’t 500 channels out there. You were lucky to have 20 or 30 channels.”
Technological breakthroughs involving cable TV, pay-per-view, and national cable networks linked by satellite were emerging. In 1978, the FCC’s “open entry” decision allowed cable carrier systems to distribute ‘distant signals,’ meaning they could take transmissions from local TV stations and show them outside of their home cities via satellite.
A man named Roy Bliss in Tulsa, Oklahoma saw an opportunity. He had helped start a company called United Video.
“It was formed by some entrepreneurs who wanted to bring distant signals from Chicago, down into central Illinois where they were just starting to build cable systems,” Bliss told CSPAN in the early-1980s.
United Video chose to take WGN’s signal and distribute it via satellite.
“We’re primarily in the satellite distribution business,” Bliss said. “We carry WGN, that’s our primary service. And we’re all very happy today because the Cubs won last night.”
David Plier, the chairman of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
“There was a satellite company called United Video out of Tulsa, Oklahoma,” he said. “It handpicked three local television stations – WOR in New York, WTBS in Atlanta, and WGN television in Chicago and they put ‘em on their satellite service, unbeknownst to WGN-TV.”
At the time, so-called “passive” satellite “carriers” like United Video were not required to have the permission of a television station to redistribute its signal to out of town markets.
“The station really didn’t have any control over it,” Bob Vorwald, the director of production at WGN, said.
Because WGN’s owner, the Tribune Company, didn’t grant permission to United Video, the relationship was described as being “not particularly friendly.”
“I had meetings frequently with the WGN guys,” Bliss said. “A very strange relationship with those guys. I used to just plead with them, ‘You’ve got a better independent than Ted Turner’s got and you could dominate the cable industry.’ And they would say, ‘We like what you’re doing. We don’t want to touch it. We want to keep this Chinese wall between us.’”
The Tribune, a conservative buttoned-up newspaper company, was leery of cable TV. Tribune lawyers even attempted to stop the re-transmission of WGN’s signal.
But publicly, WGN president Dan Pecaro said Channel 9 was “very honored it was selected” by United Video. He, however, promised WGN would always “continue to serve our Chicagoland communities.”
The reality was WGN had suddenly become a “superstation,” a local TV station with national reach.
“It made it really an exciting thing for the station to have this national presence as a local station. But also it was a good thing for the cable companies because it gave them programming that they didn’t get other places,” Novak said.
For 11 years afterward, the national WGN-TV signal carried the exact same programming schedule that was seen in the Chicago area.
Rick Morris is a dean at Northwestern University’s School of Communication and studies the history of television.
“WGN was not only Chicago’s station,” he said. “But it took Chicago to the world.”
Robert Jordan, who worked as a news reporter and anchor at WGN for more than 40 years, said the superstation brought an added element of civic responsibility to WGN employees.
“We, those of us who work here, we’re responsible for allowing people elsewhere in the world to have an understanding about Chicago,” he said.
With WGN News on a national platform, and one of the era’s most unsettling mysteries unfolding in Chicago, WGN’s coverage of the Tylenol murders had an impact on national policy.
“This was a national crisis. President Ronald Reagan ordered the FBI to get involved,” said Stacy St. Clair, a Chicago Tribune investigative reporter. “It became very apparent that it was because WGN had just become a superstation, people all over the country were getting the wall-to-wall coverage that WGN was providing. WGN was showing the images of police cars driving through the streets of Arlington Heights over the bullhorn saying, ‘Throw out your Tylenol. Don’t take your Tylenol.’ That terrifies a country. And suddenly what would have been a Chicago story, or a Midwest story, becomes this huge national story.”
In addition to the news, there were other key reasons the satellite system picked WGN to be a superstation: Bozo, the Cubs, and Donahue.
“We picked WGN because they were by far the world leader, they were really class,” Bliss said in an interview with the Cable Center. “Much, much better than Ted Turner’s TBS, and even Ted admitted that in those early days.”
Meantime, Tom Skilling’s extensive and accurate forecasts earned him a reputation as the nation’s most trusted meteorologist. It was watched by farmers, commodities traders, air traffic controllers, and travelers every night.
The Cubs, with popular play-by-play announcer Harry Caray on the microphone, were the only baseball team on TV during the day and earned a legion of fans across the country.
“That’s how the Cubs became America’s team,” Novak said. “You have to remember at that time the Cubs were only playing day games at home. So, if you wanted to see baseball during the day, and you were anywhere in the country, the only day game you’re really going to see is going to be a Cubs game. So the Cubs have fans across the country.”
It was an alternative to the daytime soap operas offered by the traditional networks.
“What happened was the biggest soap opera in afternoon television turned out to be the Chicago Cubs,” said Vorwald, who oversaw WGN sports broadcasts. “The Cubs and the superstation unintentionally became this huge marriage that then propelled WGN into the atmosphere. The Bozo Show was another one. All of these Chicago things. And there were other stations, other cities that were being put up (on the satellite) but WGN was the one that really stuck.”
More from WGN 75th Anniversary Celebration Coverage:
- That Old Car’s Worth Money: Dean Richards’ WGN-TV Ascent
- WGN at 75: Behind the scenes of ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’
- From Bozo to Bozos: Robin Baumgarten’s Lifetime of WGN ‘Disappointments’
In 1984, the Cubs were a winning team, and attracted even more viewers.
“The fact that the Cubs were becoming this national phenomenon on the superstation, and his first year was Ryne Sandberg’s first year,” said Jimmy Greenfield, an author and Cubs historian. “Two years later they had the magical ’84 season.”
Beamed across the country and around the world, WGN was an internationally known TV station.
“People watched WGN from all over this hemisphere,” Jordan said. “It was popular.”
Especially in the Central American country of Belize where the WGN signal was one just a few channels available.
“I went scuba diving in Belize,” Jordan said. “Went up in the mountains to do some hiking and so forth. And I looked around and there was a crew, and a reporter from radio and television. They wanted to interview me. I was going, ‘What? Me?’ But that’s just how WGN was.”
By the mid-1980s most of the country could see WGN.
“If you lived in Detroit or wherever you lived – you could pick them up,” said Muriel Clair, a longtime WGN news reporter, who is originally from the Detroit area. “You could get that, and my parents were happy of course that they could see their daughter on TV.”
The Bozo Show – already a Chicago institution – became one of the nation’s favorite kids’ shows
In 1989, WGN added the world’s most famous athlete to the lineup. Michael Jordan was just on the verge of becoming a global phenomenon, as the Chicago Bulls were emerging as a championship contender.
The superstation gave the biggest superstar in sports a platform to be seen nationally on a regular basis.
“Having Michael on WGN was an incredible showcase,” Vorwald said. “There was some unintended consequences – some things were funny. Like, we had an advertising issue with McDonald’s where they were going to pull their spots on WGN because they were selling the ‘McJordan Special’ in Chicago but people would see the game on the superstation and try to order it in Portland and they couldn’t get it.”
Later in the decade, United Video formally launched a separate national feed of WGN. It was a mix of Channel 9 programs available over the air in Chicago, and a limited number of separately acquired programs.
Into the 2000s, WGN’s superstation format remained stable – a mix of syndicated programs, movies, Chicago sports and news.
But the final Cubs-related telecast seen on the superstation was the 2016 World Series championship parade – seen by millions in person, and around the country on WGN.
In the waning days of the Tribune Company’s ownership, the superstation was rechristened as “WGN America.”
Tribune Media executives wanted it to become a stand-alone cable channel with national appeal, along the lines of AMC, so WGN America stopped showing Chicago news, Chicago sports and any Chicago-centric special programs.
Instead, it became a conventional basic cable station, presenting a variety of syndicated and original scripted shows
In 2019, Nexstar Media Group acquired Tribune Media, and in 2020, Nexstar re-launched WGN America as a national news network called NewsNation. Some of NewsNation’s programming is produced out of the WGN studios in Chicago today.