The balcony closes on "At The Movies"

The balcony is closed. Forever.

(have I said this before?)

And yes, it’s for good this time.

After 24 years, Disney-ABC Television Distribution has pulled the plug on At The Movies, the half-hour weekly movie review show once fronted by Chicago movie reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.

The most recent incarnation was hosted by Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips and New York Times critic A.O. Scott, and was produced at ABC-owned WLS-TV in Chicago, where it aired at 10:35 p.m. on Saturday nights. The program ends its run the weekend of August 14, with repeats scheduled to run until August 28.

Two years ago, both Richard Roeper and Ebert departed from the show.

The program’s roots go back to 1975 as a weekly movie review show on WTTW titled Coming soon… to a Theater Near You, with Siskel, who was the film critic for the Chicago Tribune, and Ebert, who was the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. It was later retitled Sneak Previews and in 1978, was made available to PBS stations around the country. It was here their “thumbs up/thumbs down” method of reviewing movies became well known.

In 1982, the duo left public television behind for a deal with Tribune Entertainment to do At The Movies. They departed the show in 1986 for a deal with Buena Vista Television (now Disney-ABC Television Distribution) in a new movie-review show titled Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, which was shortened to just Siskel & Ebert shortly thereafter.

Siskel & Ebert  often ranked in the top twenty on Nielsen’s syndicated shows chart.

The industry was shocked in late 1998 when Siskel was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died in early 1999. In 2000 pop culture columnist Richard Roeper of the Sun-Times was named co-host, who proved he was just as good as the guy who he succeeded. The show was renamed Ebert & Roeper.

But by this time, ratings started to decline – especially when Ebert was forced off the show due to thyroid illness in 2006. Ebert was replaced by Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, though the title remained Ebert & Roeper, and it was changed again in 2007 to At The Movies with Ebert & Roeper, partly using the old title of Siskel & Ebert’s syndicated show when the duo were with Tribune.

In 2008, Roger Ebert’s contract was not renewed by Disney-ABC, and both he and Richard Roeper decided to depart the show. They were both replaced by film critics Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz complete with a format change, which derived from the “thumbs up/ thumbs down” format which made the program so popular with audiences. Viewers hated the new format, as ratings were down 23 percent in households and down 25 percent in the core adults 25-54 demo. In September 2009, the “two Bens” were replaced with a returning Michael Phillips and added A.O. Scott, a New York Times film critic, who was a frequent fill-in for Ebert.

The program did well for WLS on Saturday nights, competitive with Saturday Night Live. But At The Movies was buried in late-night time slots in many markets, undermining the program’s ability to attract and maintain national barter advertising.

But more than likely, the move is related to TV stations’ desire to stick with off-network repeats and infomercials in key weekend time periods, rather than to commit to first-run programming (outside of weekend editions of nightly strips.) Over the past decade, CBS, NBC, and ABC have abandoned original programming on Saturday nights, and Friday nights could be next as most series there are struggling.

Recently, Tribune announced it was not picking up fantasy/sci-fi series Legend of the Seeker for a third season, which like At The Movies, is syndicated by Disney-ABC Television Distribution. The fate of Seeker for next season remains unknown.

With the departure of Oprah Winfrey in 2011 – and At The Movies this August, Chicago is left with just two nationally syndicated series in production – Warner Bros. Judge Jenne Pirro and Judge Mathis, both of which share space at NBC Tower in the River North neighborhood. Last year, both Steve Wilkos and Jerry Springer departed the Windy City for Stamford, Conn.

At The Movies was certainly the last of its kind on television – the movie-review show. Two similar, recent entries – Paramount’s Hot Ticket (2001-04) and NBC Universal’s New York-based Reel Talk (2007-09) – were not successful with audiences. Reel Talk was co-hosted by film critic Jeffrey Lyons, whose son Ben was a critic on At The Movies. In the ultimate irony, both father and son lost their jobs in the same calendar year (The senior Lyons was fired from his film critic position at WNBC-TV last May.)

And as for the title At The Movies, this actually marks the second cancellation of the show – when Siskel & Ebert left the show in 1986, Tribune continued the program for four more years, with the insufferable Rex Reed and his co-host, Bill Harris (who left after two seasons and was replaced by the charisma-free Dixie Whatley.) When Tribune failed to secure enough clearances to renew the show for a ninth season in August 1990, they canceled the show.

Tribune Entertainment folded on December 18, 2007.


4 thoughts on “The balcony closes on "At The Movies"

    • I'm not sure who's more versed in TV history, you or Marc Berman, good history lesson here. :)

      Hezi, Balto, Md.

    • Thank you for the kind comment!

    • WKRG-TV in Mobile, Alabama has been airing this program at 5:30 AM on Saturdays for years and has occasionally pre-empted it for paid programming since last September. This treatment is why I never got to see the show until years after Gene Siskel's death.

      "In the ultimate irony, both father and son lost their jobs in the same calendar year (Lyons was fired from his film critic position at WNBC-TV last May.)"

      I'm sure you were referring to Jeffrey Lyons in parentheses.

    • The correct original title of "Sneak Previews" was "Opening Soon at a Theater Near You".

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