Comes at a time of uncertain future for local institution
While all the hoopla was over WGN-TV celebrating its 75th year of broadcasting, let’s not forget there’s another station celebrating its 75th, too.
ABC-owned WLS-TV, branded as ABC 7 since the 1990s, celebrated its 75th on September 17. Although there was no two-hour special to comminate the occasion like WGN’s, it was covered on the station’s 10 p.m. newscast this past Sunday.
“Throughout our history, we have led the way in news, technical innovation and service to the community,” says John Idler, who is general manager of ABC 7. “We are tremendously proud to be the No. 1 station in Chicago and look forward to another 75 years of excellence and community connection.”
The present day ABC 7 began as WENR-TV Channel 7 on September 17, 1948 as one of ABC’s fourteen original affiliates and five owned by the network. In 1953, WBKB-TV Channel 4 owners United Paramount Theaters (who also owned the Balaban and Katz chain) merged with ABC and since the FCC did not allow one entity dual TV station ownership at the time, United Paramount moved its call letters and management (but not personnel or talent) to Channel 7 while selling Channel 4 to CBS, and rechristening it WBBM-TV (they would move to Channel 2 in July 1953.)
The key to WBKB’s success – and to all the other ABC-owned stations would be local programming, produced at the highest quality. It included kids shows Jobblewocky Place and Mulqueen’s Kiddie-A-Go-Go (from 1965-66), and adult programs such as The Tom Duggan Show, the ambitious travel show Passage To Adventure and horror movie showcase Shock Theater, hosted by Terry Bennett in his Marvin character.
WLS’ Circle 7 logo (an ABC O&O staple since 1962) was plastered on an antenna at Marina City, seen for miles when lit up at night.
On October 7, 1968, WBKB’s call letters were changed to WLS, to match those of the radio station in bought eight years earlier. In the 1970s, WLS continued to target local audiences with hometown fare including Bill Jackson’s Gigglesnort Hotel and others. During this time, a local personality named Bob Kennedy rose to fame and became so popular, he had two local daily shows on WLS – Kennedy & Co. in the morning and Kennedy at Night. Kennedy was tapped by ABC to be a contributor to its upcoming AM America morning show, but unexpectedly died in November 1974 from bone cancer, stunning local viewers and media observers alike.
WLS had better luck with AM Chicago in seeing two of its hosts achieve higher national profiles – Robb Weller, who went on to co-anchor Entertainment Tonight and host the final season of Win, Lose, or Draw (which was carried locally by WLS) and Oprah Winfrey, who helped change the station’s morbid fortunes in the mid-1980s as it transitioned into The Oprah Winfrey Show and became a nationally syndicated talk show powerhouse. Also in the 1980s, WLS had local magazine show Eye on Chicago and partnered with its FM counterpart to air music video showcase Rock On Chicago. The 1990s saw Steppin’ at Club 7, with local radio host Herb Kent.
Recent local programs on ABC 7 included Chicagoing, Windy City Live, and 190 North. WLS also carried local sports, including Cubs games as WENR in 1949 and again as WLS-TV from 2015 to 2019. They also produced sports documentaries, such as 1964’s Inside The World Of The Chicago Blackhawks.
While WLS-TV’s local newscasts weren’t really ratings grabbers in the 1960s, they received a jolt of energy in 1968 when Joel Daly was paired with Fahey Flynn for Flynn-Daly News, later to be known as Eyewitness News in a series of offbeat promos. WLS would rise to the top of the ratings by 1973, dethroning Floyd Kalber and WMAQ-TV thanks to the “Happy Talk” format, and remained on top thanks to ABC’s surge to the top of the prime-time ratings race in the late 1970s (ironically, Kalber wound up at WLS anchoring the 6 p.m. news for a long run starting in 1984.)
By the early 1980s, however, WLS’ news ratings fell – and fell hard as more viewers switched to the more serious tone of WBBM’s newscasts, anchored by Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson. But when Oprah Winfrey and key syndicated acquisitions Jeopardy! and Wheel Of Fortune became ratings winners, so did WLS’ newscasts and returned to the top spot by 1986 and hasn’t relinquished Chicago’s news crown since (though NBC-owned WMAQ has won the 10 p.m. news race a few times.) WLS became as the most-watched local station in Chicago, even topping NBC’s nationally dominant prime-time lineup locally in the late 1980s and early 1990s at times.
WLS also invested heavily in technology, becoming the first local station to broadcast news in high-definition (though Fox’s WFLD was the first Chicago station to air a high-def signal.) And to this day, the station carries basically every major parade in the city from Bud Billiken to Chicago Pride.
There were a couple of bizarre on-air incidents that took place at the station’s longtime 190 North State Street location, once known as a vaudeville house and a movie theater. In December 2007, a Mazda minivcan purposely crashed into the station’s front-side studio during a live 10 p.m. newscast, and in the early morning hours of August 10, 2020, a mob broke into a Potbelly’s restaurant next door to the station during a live report as the Loop descended into chaos as rampant looting and vandalism took place – including gunfire being heard live on the air. On August 25, 1990, an armed robbery suspect entered into the building through an open garage before its 10 p.m. newscast started, forcing the station toff the air for hours as police evacuated the facility to conduct a floor-to-floor search in a two-day saga.
As the business changed, so did the ownership of ABC 7’s corporate parent as the network sold to Capital Cities in 1985 and as the financial interest and syndication rules went away, acquired by The Walt Disney Co. in 1996.
The future of ABC7, the network itself, and its owned stations are up in air after Disney chairman Bob Iger has indicated he would sell the network as he feels linear TV is declining in value, despite its profitability – and despite ABC 7’s dominance in the ratings. Over the past week, possible suitors named were Allen Media Group and WGN-TV owner Nexstar, which could see the market’s two top-rated news stations possibly merge – if regulators let them.
[Editor’s Note – an earlier post listed an incorrect date on when the WBKB-TV calls changed to WLS. -T.H.]