WGN-TV at 75

Station’s rich history celebrated. But what about the next 75 years? 

It was on April 5, 1948 when Col. Robert McCormick fired up the transmitter to join the herd in taking advantage of a then-brand new medium to reach the masses – television. 

People stood outside of Tribune Tower in Chicago to see what the hubbub was about. It was the launch of WGN Television, who would be sister of WGN Radio in WGN Continental Broadcasting, who shared the Chicago Daily Tribune as a parent. A new adventure was about to begin. 

Fast forward 75 years, and WGN-TV is still here, though now owned by a company out of Texas, and no longer counts the Tribune newspaper as a sister property. Though the highs (memorable sports moments and children’s programming) and lows (anything with the name Geraldo in it), WGN has been there for Chicagoans, through the arrival of color TV, surround-sound stereo, HDTV, and four TV networks. 

Its history began on that April 1948 night becoming the second TV station to sign-on in Chicago (behind the original WBKB – now known as CBS-owned WBBM-TV) with an introductory program, WGN-TV’s Salute to Chicago. Speeches were made inside the Tribune Tower building by McCormick and other dignitaries to those in attendance and to the estimated 2,000 households who had TV sets in the Chicago area. Even though some think WGN was based at the Tribune Tower, the station initially broadcast from a commercial building in the West Loop who once housed WMAQ radio. 

WGN quickly signed up with the floundering DuMont network and also had a secondary affiliation with CBS until 1953, when the network bought WBKB in a complicated deal (WBKB’s owner was United-Paramount theaters, whose merger with ABC forced them to sell their the station since ABC already owned WENR-TV and the FCC at the time didn’t allow common ownership of two stations in the same market, though they kept the WBKB call letters and its off-air personnel and became the present-day WLS-TV.) Many DuMont shows were produced at WGN, but financial trouble forced the network to fold in August 1956, leaving WGN as an independent though they were briefly affiliated with the NTA Film Network, a programming service similar to the first few years of My Network TV.   

By 1958, WGN started broadcasting local programs in color, and moved to its all-color studio at 2501 Bradley Place in 1961, where they remain today. Among the shows broadcast at the facility was the groundbreaking Bozo’s Circus show, a lunchtime staple (in its first 19 years) that introduced viewers to Bozo The Clown and became a Chicago legend with an impressive four-decade run. WGN was the leader in producing long-running live children’s shows, including Garfield Goose and Ray Rayner And Friends – all continue to be relevant today to older generations of of Chicagoans. WGN had something for all ages, from the late-night Creature Features to Frazier Thomas-hosted Family Classics. WGN was also home to numerous parades, from the St. Patrick’s and Thanksgiving Parades to Bud Billiken, broadcast across the country (more on that in a minute.) 

On the other hand, WGN was also home to one of the most infamous live TV spectacles in history, with The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults from the since-demolished Lexington Hotel at Cermak and Michigan on April 21, 1986 hosted by Geraldo Rivera. Even though there was nothing found in those “vaults” but empty wine bottles and dirt, the overwhelming ratings success from the special led WGN’s parent company to offer him a syndicated talk show deal. 

WGN of course, was also a leader in live sports programming dating back to its beginnings, covering all Chicago teams (including the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals in 1951 through DuMont), not to mention boxing, wrestling, college football and basketball, and most recently, soccer. Of course, the station is best known for Cubs games, who it and Bozo became big draws after WGN followed Atlanta’s WTBS by beaming its signal nationwide to cable viewers in 1978 becoming “superstations”, and remaining popular in the 1990s when the newly-installed syndicated exclusivity rules (or “syndex”) stripped away much of its syndicated programming (I have more on WGN’s sports history here in an article I wrote in 2019.) By the mid-1980s, WGN-TV was known as “Chicago’s Very Own”, sung in a series of memorable promos by Lou Rawls and showing Chicagoans at home, work, and at play (and in this clip, its fall 1983 programming, including Alice, The Jeffersons, and The Love Boat:) 

Another long-time WGN staple is of course, news from Chicagoland Newsreel to Nightbeat, with a memorable opening showing off the city after-hours. Here’s a full newscast from September 1980: 


WGN has won numerous prestigious awards for its news programming, and home to top-tier anchor talent including Merri Dee (who would also become the station’s announcer), Jack Taylor, Jim Ruddle, Marty McNeely, Len O’Connor, Rick Rosenthal, Robert Jordan, Allison Payne, and a lot more too numerous to list here. And of course, no WGN news history is complete without mentioning meteorologist Tom Skilling, as since he came aboard in 1978, became a household name in Chicago TV lore. Currently, WGN airs eleven-and-a-half hours of news a day – more than any other station in Chicago and for the last 20 years, is the area’s second most-watched news operation only behind WLS. 

Another standout is WGN Morning News, which is so popular, the show has its own social media pages. Debuting in September 1994 (with a traditional hour-long newscast), the show evolved into a six-hour newscast providing tons of hilarious viral moments and even spinning off a weekly comedy show (the short-lived Man Of The People with morning sports anchor Pat Tomasulo.) WGN did have an early-morning half-hour newscast in the 1970s and 1980s called Top O’ The Morning with Orion Samuelson, but it wasn’t really a success as the demand for news during that time of day wasn’t established yet. 

By the 1980s, WGN Continental became Tribune Broadcasting and by 1992, owned seven TV stations in the U.S. including WPIX New York, KTLA Los Angeles, and KWGN Denver – continuing their successes even in the face of upstart Fox Broadcasting. WGN began a syndication company in the 1960s to sell shows to stations across the country, who would evolve into Tribune Entertainment in 1982. The company lured film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert away from WTTW and PBS the same year with new movie-review show At The Movies, produced at WGN-TV and helped provided programming for its station group – though most of it was forgettable including The Joan Rivers Show, inferior sci-fi junk such as Mutant X and Earth: Final Conflict, and Dennis Miller’s failed 1992 talk show attempt (but he did leave us with this great promo featuring Tom Skilling:)  

Tribune continued to grow in the 1990s and as it became quite influential, it attracted attention from Warner Bros., who was looking for a partner to launch a new television network as the financial interest and syndication rules were drawing to a close. In late 1993, Tribune and Warner formed The WB – though WGN didn’t sign on as an affiliate at first, but did so after WPWR signed with another upstart (UPN) and the last remaining available independent (WGBO-TV) was sold to Univision. WGN returned to a status of being an network affiliate on January 11, 1995 – 39 years after the DuMont network ended. In 2006, The WB and UPN merged to create The CW with WGN as an inaugural affiliate.

Since 2006, the changes at WGN were covered here on the blog: Tribune’s acquisition by Sam Zell and its subsequent bankruptcy; Tribune Entertainment’s closure in 2007; Tribune’s split, which saw WGN-TV and radio become part of Tribune Media; the WGN America years, the end of the “superstation”, and its subsequent replacement by NewsNation; the decision to drop The CW in 2016 to air sports programming – which they lost all the rights to in 2019, the same year Irving, Tex.-based Nexstar Media Group bought Tribune – approved by a divided FCC – ending decades of local ownership.

The present-day WGN reminds us about its history, Bozo and all, often to the point of annoyance while airing a Saudi Arabia-funded golf league (at least sports programming returned to WGN.) After all, the average age of the typical linear TV viewer has shot up to boomer territory, as more and more young viewers abandon the platform for streaming, something Nexstar doesn’t quite have a grasp on

Despite WGN’s current ownership, the independent is still a force to be reckon with. It’s unknown if the station would reunite with The CW, now under common ownership with Nexstar. But it is in a good position to weather the changes taking place in television as long as people have a need for local news and programming. 

For more on WGN-TV’s 75th Anniversary, the station created a page to celebrate the anniversary. To access it, click here


5 thoughts on “WGN-TV at 75

    • Overall, the WGN at 75 television special was disappointing. It was mostly just a rehashing of the weekly reports that Mike Lowe has been presenting the last few months. I also felt too much time was spent on WGN today.

      There were several past WGN favorites that I didn’t even see acknowledged like Roseanne Tellez, Lauren Magiera, Rich King, Roger Triemstra, Mike Hamernik, Sonja Gantt, Frank Holland, Dave Eckert, Jerry Peterson, and I’m sure others. I was expecting them to give a little bit more of how John Drury helped launch The Nine O’clock News since it has been their flagship newscast for so many years. I didn’t see anything about the Illinois lottery game shows that were on Channel 9 for several years. Also, when they showed some of the clowns that had been with Bozo, I didn’t see Spiffy. There was nothing showing Pat Hurley who joined Bozo after Frazier Thomas passed away. Mr. Hurley also had a few comedy specials on Channel 9 during his time there.

      Maybe I was expecting too much from Chicago’s Very Own.

    • Good post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Many thanks!

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