WMAQ-TV marks 75th Anniversary

Joins ABC 7 and WGN in doing so with special segments

So far, 2023 saw ABC’s WLS-TV and Nexstar’s WGN-TV mark their 75th anniversaries, the latter with a two-hour special. And now NBC-owned WMAQ-TV (branded as NBC 5 and NBC Chicago locally) is also joining the party. 

Several WMAQ alumnus will be joining the station for special segments during the station’s 10 p.m. newscasts during the next few weeks, including names such as Ron Magers, Carol Marin, Mark Giangreco, Bob Sirott, Rich Samuels, and Art Norman, among others. Other famous alumni who’ve worked for the station’s news department include Jorie Luloff, Johnny Morris, Mary Laney, Jim Tilmon, Jim Ruddle, Warner Saunders, Maury Povich, Ron Hunter, Jane Pauley, Carole Simpson, Greg Gumbel, Deborah Norville, and countless others. 

A 1951 episode of WNBQ’s “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie”, with Fran Allison. It became the first TV show to go national (on NBC) from Chicago.

“Since the advent of local broadcast television, WMAQ-TV has been at the forefront of innovation, creativity, integrity, and connectivity to the Chicago community,” said Kevin Cross, who is president and general manager for NBCUniversal Local Chicago. “As we celebrate WMAQ-TV’s historic 75th anniversary this month, NBC Chicago will relive numerous stories that occurred over the decades and honor the on-air and behind-the-scenes trailblazers who helped define our legacy.”

NBC 5 has an anniversary special teed up for Friday at 11:30 a.m., joining WGN-TV who did theirs April 5 as ABC 7 declined to do one. NBC 5 plans an interactive Flashback Friday segment with viewers voting on the most memorable stories from each decade from the 1980s to the 2010s and launched a special 75th Anniversary website where viewers can see archived material.

WMAQ was launched as WNBQ-TV from the Merchandise Mart on October 8, 1948 and one of the five original NBC-owned stations with WNBC New York, KNBC Los Angeles, WRC Washington D.C., and WNBK (now WKYC) Cleveland, who was swapped with Group W’s WPTZ (now KYW) Philadelphia in 1956 before the FCC ordered NBC to reverse the swap in 1965. WNBQ shows originating from the Mart during this time to be shown nationally include Kukla, Fran, and Ollie; Garroway At Large with Dave Garroway; and local shows such as Ding Dong School. During this time, WNBQ became the first local Chicago TV station to broadcast entirely in color, thanks in part to NBC’s corporate parent RCA, who manufactured and marketed color TV sets. 

In 1964, WNBQ became WMAQ-TV, to match the calls of its radio sister station also located at the Mart, WMAQ-AM. During this time, “The Big Tuna”, Floyd Kabler dominated local news ratings for WMAQ in Chicagoland until finally getting knocked off by WLS-TV by 1973 with its “happy talk” format. In the 1970s, WMAQ developed local programming such as Sorting It Out, featuring a pre-Cheers Shelley Long and kids’ show Kidding Around, which ran for seven years. During this time however, NBC slid in the ratings and reportedly near bankruptcy by 1980, but WMAQ still did better in the ratings with local news than most NBC affiliates at the time. 

In 1985, WMAQ became the first commercial TV station to broadcast in stereo and rode the wave to success in part due to NBC’s resurgence in the ratings thanks to mega-hits The Cosby Show and Cheers but was kept at arm’s length by a even-hotter WLS-TV as Oprah Winfrey soared in popularity. There were some notable programming blunders such as letting popular syndicated series Love Connection and The People’s Court go to rival WBBM-TV in 1987 and the NBC syndicated checkboard experiment in prime access the same year, costing the station ratings points. 1991 saw WLUP-FM’s Jonathan Brandmeier come and go after three months with the critically-maligned Johnny B. On The Loose and a recent effort to compete with ABC 7’s New Year’s Eve show (Chi-Town Rising) was met with tepid results. But the station did have several solid syndicated hits such as Donahue, Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen, and Access: Hollywood

A 1969 ad for Floyd Kalber and WMAQ’s then-dominant 10 p.m. newscast. (from Coolcanoga on Ebay)

WMAQ did make history in 1990 by acquiring the syndication rights to Fox’s raunchy hit Married…With Children for fall 1991 from Columbia Pictures TV (now Sony) for 6:30 p.m. as it became the first station in a top 50 market to acquire rights to an off-network sitcom for prime access since PTAR went into effect in 1971 as Fox at the time, didn’t meet the criteria as a network defined by the FCC as off-network programming was banned from 6-7 p.m. local time on Big 3 affiliates (PTAR ended in 1996.) It was their first off-network sitcom purchase since The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show in the late 1970s for afternoon play. 

In October 1989, NBC left the Mart behind after 60 years to move into new digs at 455 Cityfront Drive, known as the NBC Tower. In addition to be the home of NBC News’ and CNBC’s Chicago bureaus, the tower was home to nationally syndicated shows Jenny Jones, Kwik Witz, daytime strip The Steve Harvey Show, Judge Mathis, and of course, the controversial and trashy Jerry Springer

In a bit of infamy, Springer – a former news anchor at Cincinnati’s WLWT, was signed by WMAQ in 1997 to deliver commentaries on the station’s 10 p.m. newscast. The uproar was humongous as anchors Ron Magers and Carol Marin resigned in protest. Ratings for their newscasts declined significantly, but rebounded five years later as the station finished first at 10 p.m. in November 2002 under anchors Warner Saunders and Allison Rosati, but maintained its second-place standing in local news behind ABC 7 ever since (with the notable exception of November 2009, when NBC 5 finished third thanks to a weak Jay Leno Show lead-in.)

Facing continuing protests from community leaders including the Rev. Michael Pflager, Springer left WMAQ in June 1998 for Fox-owned WFLD and left its NBC Tower home in 2009 for Connecticut. The show ended in 2018, and Springer died in April at 79.

Another controversial instance took place in 1974 as station commentator Len O’Connor criticized WMAQ management – on the air for three consecutive nights over the station’s handling of a commentary he gave ripping into then-Illinois Gov. Dan Walker’s hiring of Bruce Sagan as head of the Illinois Arts Council. O’Connor claimed WMAQ was depriving him of his freedom of speech and said station management was planning to fire him. He left shortly thereafter. 

A 1996 station ID screenshot, showing the Peacock at the NBC Tower lit up at night.

WMAQ was also home to numerous Chicago sports teams championship clinchers broadcast over the station with all six Bulls NBA titles and three Blackhawks’ Stanley Cups. The Bears’ Super Bowl XX victory over the Patriots in 1986 drew the station’s highest rating ever, a record that still stands to this very day. The station was also home to the inaugural NASCAR Chicago Street Race, which is returning next year. 

In 2000, reruns of WMAQ’s newscasts and other programming aired over WCPX/Channel 38 as part of a local marketing agreement between NBC and Pax (now Ion) as NBC purchased a third of Pax. NBC’s acquisition of Spanish-language Telemundo in 2002 made WMAQ and WSNS sister stations in a a deal opposed by Pax owner Bud Paxson, saying it violated the terms of its LMA. Pax wound up reacquiring the stake in 2003 and ended the agreement two years later when Pax was sold. 

Like its parent network, WMAQ underwent ownership changes from RCA to GE in 1986, and became part of Comcast in 2011. In the last few years, NBC 5 – like other stations owned by NBCUniversal, launched 24/7 streaming channels featuring news and local programming, and merged management of NBC 5, WSNS, and NBC Sports Chicago all into a single entity.

So who’s next? WTTW began in 1954, WCIU in 1964, and WFLD in 1966, so they have a ways to go before reaching their 75th. CBS-owned WBBM’s history is complicated as even though the station assumed the calls and CBS network ownership in 1953, its roots go back as far as 1940 as experimental station W9XBK on Channel 4. 


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