T Dog’s Think Tank: The “R” word

Chicago sports teams now have something in common with media companies – rebuilding when the good times end 

Chicagoans better get used to a word they’ve been hearing a lot: rebuild.

Last week, two of Chicago’s sports franchises – the Bulls and Blackhawks announced changes that dramatically overhauled their lineups for next season.

On the day of the NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls traded franchise player Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for several players and draft picks. On Friday, the Blackhawks – winners of three Stanley Cups in the last eight years – decided to part ways with one of their utility players by trading Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes – though they did bring back Brandon Saad from the Columbus Blue Jackets, who was on two of their three Stanley Cup teams. And this was on top of shocking news earlier in the week of Marian Hossa being forced out for the entire 2017-18 season due to a skin condition.

As you can imagine, the news of the Bulls trade angered the fanbase – to the point they were calling for the firing of general managers Gar Forman and John Paxson, the latter who was on several winning teams in the Bulls’ heyday. One person was reportedly even trying to buy a billboard to post a “FirePax” message (how odd there seems to be more anger over this than the Illinois budget stalemate – which affects peoples’ livelihoods than any sports team – should we ask for Governor Rauner and House Speaker Madigan to be fired instead?)

The recent moves by both teams will likely give fans more of a reason not to tune in – regular season ratings for the Bulls and Blackhawks were already down from the previous season. And in an era with are so many programming choices, many Chicagoans will spend their winter nights finding something else to watch.

The Bulls and to a lesser extent, the Blackhawks join the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bears  in a word many Chicagoans have been hearing about a lot lately – “rebuild”. But conceding defeat and being upfront about your team’ chances is used quite a bit in television and radio.  With so much hate toward Forman and Paxson, yours truly was thinking about the history of bad management in the industry and the “rebuilding” efforts that followed. And if you’ve read this blog for the last eleven years, then you know what I mean.

In television, we’ve seen rebuilding efforts at NBC after the disastrous reigns of Fred Silverman and Jeff Zucker/Ben Silverman (no relation to Fred.) Part of the “rebuild” in the early ’80’s was bringing in Grant Tinker and Brandon Tarikoff and investing in quality programming – and the rest is history as NBC took the top spot in 1985 and didn’t surrender the title until 1992. When NBC faltered again under Zucker, the network’s respectability was restored under Bob Greenblatt.

John Paxson (l.) and Gar Forman. (CSN Chicago)

ABC was in a similar position in the mid-1980’s, unable to recapture its top-rated late 1970’s heyday (who, previous to 1976, was stuck in “rebuild” mode.) Rebuilding effort took years, but struck gold with several hits such as Roseanne, Full House, and Home Improvement. After Who Wants To Be A Millionaire sent the network back to the top in 2000 only to hit bottom again in 2004, the network invested in quality dramas such as Lost and Desperate Housewives and bounced back.

Even CBS had to do a rebuild at one point. After so such success, the network was taken over by Larry Tisch in 1986 as his cost-cutting hurt program development at the network. By 1988, CBS fell into third place for the first time ever and struggled through much of the 1990’s after losing the NFL to Fox (though the network did finish first from 1992-94 thanks in part to the Winter Olympics.) Les Moonves finally righted the ship, with hits Everybody Loves Raymond and Survivor and creating a global franchise with CSI, while holding on to its older-skewing audience. Today, CBS proudly proclaims itself as “America’s Most Watched Network.”

Right now, you can say Fox is the network most defined in being in “rebuild” mode, as admitted at a TCA upfront presentation by network presidents Gary Newman and Dana Walden, the Gar and Pax of the television business. After pulling the plug on a declining American Idol after fourteen years – and seeing ABC make the Kevin Durant free-agent steal of the century, Fox – like the Bulls, may not be competitive for quite some time as the duo made numerous bizarre business decisions that don’t make sense as owner 21st Century Fox has made Fox News and FS1 their priorities.

In terms of Chicago television, WLS-TV is known as the New England Patriots of local news – the top-rated operation doesn’t rebuild – they reload. Recently, the ABC-owned station snared former WFLD-TV political reporter Craig Wall to replace retired Charles Thomas while another successful local news station (WGN-TV) added former WMAQ weekend anchor Lauren Jiggetts to their morning team. But with Sinclair taking over WGN and the rest of Tribune Media, they could suffer though a Tisch-like cost-cutting move.

And of course, it seems CBS-owned WBBM-TV and Fox’s WFLD are always rebuilding, struggling for years. But the news product both stations are producing is better than it was in the past, even though the effort so far hasn’t been evident in the ratings. Then there’s CBS affiliate WGCL in Atlanta, where they seemingly push the reset button every week.

In terms of Chicago radio, there is always one station always in rebuilding mode: WLS-FM and their 1,536 format changes over the last 40 years, with the current rebuild taking place after the authoritarian reign of Jan Jeffries, who wouldn’t let the station’s personalities talk on-air for no more than five seconds. And who could forget WGN-AM’s reign in the Kevin Metheny era? WGN radio had to bring the station back to respectability again only to blow it by hiring Jimmy deCastro to run the place.

But the biggest rebuild effort – which itself turned into a disaster is the reign of the Tribune Company under Sam Zell and Randy Michaels. After Zell bought the company in 2007, Tribune went into bankruptcy a year later, which would take years to exit. And when they did, the company split into two – Tribune Media (now being sold to Sinclair) and Tribune Publishing – who later renamed itself “tronc” in a move which drew scorn and mockery. Judging by the state of the Chicago Tribune (and the continued employment of numerous lousy “columnists” – including one editorial board member who wrote this inane piece), the “rebuild” efforts are still ongoing.

So in essence, “rebuilding” happens all the time as both sports and media are cynical businesses. But you wonder if Forman and Paxson attended the same kind of management school those who ruined media companies did. There is literally no difference between the two men running the Bulls’ front office and Zell and Michaels running the Tribune – or those running currently running tronc, 21st Century Fox, iHeartMedia, Cumulus, or Sinclair.

And that’s the most troubling aspect.