CNN’s “Chicagoland” stalls at the starting gate

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The first episode of Robert Redford’s eight-episode documentary didn’t attract much of an audience

Reviews mixed, but Chicago viewers’ reception is more positive

Chicago is in the spotlight once again thanks to a new eight-hour documentary Chicagoland, which premiered Thursday on CNN and is running at 9 p.m. for the next eight weeks. Produced by Robert Redford, Mark Levin, and Sundance, the series focuses on the Windy City’s triumphs, struggles, celebrations, and tragedies. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is prominently featured in the series, at least in the first episode. While not perfect, it serves as a reminder – a sobering one at times – about the struggles we face in the city we call home.

To dismiss Chicagoland as an campaign infomercial for Rahm would be understandable since he’s featured in the show quite frequently. But dismissing this series as just another reality show or as mindless entertainment is ridiculous. In fact, the people featured in Chicagoland are more real than anyone on The Real Housewives of Atlanta or Love and Hip-Hop. They’re dealing with real issues like whether or not they can get their kids to school safely and whether or not their school would close. This is real life, not another show about a Kardashian looking for her next fifteen minutes of fame.

Whether we like or not, this is a part of the media business. There’s more to the television industry than yakking about Community’s low ratings, late-night talk show shenanigans, or the classic Brady Bunch episode where Marcia got creamed by a football. A city’s image does have an effect on their market’s ad revenue – just ask Detroit, where despite ranked higher in market size (#11), is often outdrawn by twelfth-ranked Phoenix and thirteenth-ranked Seattle in ad revenue.

The first episode features numerous education-related issues, including the notably attractive Fenger high school principal trying to hold it and her students together in a neighborhood plagued with gang violence, to the 2012 Chicago Public Schools Teachers Strike, which shut schools for a week and featured a tug of war between Mayor Emanuel and Teachers Union president Karen Lewis – not to mention the closing of 50 public schools, the largest shutdown in American history.

Then there’s the out-of-control gang problem, which put Chicago in an unflattering national spotlight for the last several years, with 2012 racking up 500 murders. Many students of those closed schools were forced to across gang lines, with the city coming up with “Safe Passage” routes.

African-Americans are featured prominently on Chicagoland, but you have to ask – is this documenting the struggles of the community – or is it just reinforcing and exploiting negative black stereotypes? It seems Chicagoland was doing both, though judging by future promos, it plans to show the positive side of the black community (a huge minus however, was neglecting the city’s large Hispanic community, which it did in the first episode.)

As a South Sider, watching this was quite tough – its easy to see why many on this side of town would skip Chicagoland – we don’t necessarily want to be reminded we live in one of the most segregated and crime-plagued cities in the country (I’ve written about Chicago’s image problems for years, including South Side bashing, and what Rachel Shteir and the very overrated Jon Stewart had to say. Not everyone loves Chicago, as you can tell.)

Critical Reception

Reaction from critics have been mixed, with a 61 score on Metacritic. Chicagoland was received more positively from local critics like Lori Rackl and Robert Feder. Reaction on Twitter and other social media sites have also been positive (at least from Chicagoans), though others dismissed it immediately (“Liberalism at its worst”, one tweeter noted.) Many were quite vicious in their criticism of the show.

Yours truly on Twitter gave the first episode of Chicagoland a grade of C. While it was neat to have the all access pass to see what goes on in the city – especially in Mayor Emanuel’s office, the portrayal of those who weren’t Chicago’s movers and shakers was just about as I expected, as it seemed to be a cut-and-paste job. In other words, it’s not as balanced as you think. Personally, I’m not a fan of Rahm Emanuel, and yes, the C rating could have been lower.

In addition, the voiceover/narration was just awful and irritating to listen to. It sounded like professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts was narrating the show (Mark Konkol may be a Pulitzer-prize journalist, but he’s definitely no Casey Kasem or Sid McCoy.) Morgan Freeman or a local radio personality (who isn’t Mancow) would’ve been a better choice.

Ratings

Despite the hype locally, CNN’s Chicagoland stalled at the starting gate. On Thursday night opposite ABC’s Scandal and CBS’ Elementary, Chicagoland earned only a 1.8 household rating, compared to Scandal’s 7.1, Elementary 5.4, and WGN News’ 5.0. On the other hand, Chicagoland did finish as the top non-sports cable program of the evening. Among adults 25-54 (the key news demo), Chicagoland finished fifth with a 1.5, ahead of WFLD’s newscast (1.1) and in total viewers.

Unfortunately, Chicagoland did not generate interest outside of the Windy City – the premiere episode placed third among the major cable news networks, drawing 629,000 total viewers and just 227,000 in the 25-54 demo, though it was within striking distance of Fox News (who had 247,000.) Chicagoland also failed to crack the top 100 cable shows among adults 18-49, meaning Chicagoland skewed quite old – not a good start for Robert Redford and Co.

Keep in mind Chicagoland was repeated several times over the weekend, so viewers do have a chance to check out the series.

T Dog Media will keep tabs on Chicagoland over the next few weeks to see how the series progresses.

 

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