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Chicago's WMAQ Television

Tom Webb
Brookwood Junior High School, Glenwood

NBC television station WMAQ has been an influential television station in the Chicago area. That broadcasting station is located in one of Chicago's newest skyscrapers, and the programming consists of information on many subjects. Ratings, which are gauged by the size of the viewing audience, help the station determine the kinds of programs favored by Chicagoans.

NBC started Chicago's radio broadcasting from the Merchandise Mart on April 22, 1922. The radio station was jointly owned by the Fair (department) Store and the Chicago Daily News. The station's name was WMAQ. "Fibber McGee and Molly" and "Amos 'n' Andy" were two famous radio shows broadcast from the radio station. In the late 1940s part of the radio station was converted into television studios. Originally, the station's call letters were WNBY, but they were changed to WNBQ in 1948. The first telecast aired (October 8, 1948) on this station was the World Series, and the first commercial programs aired on January 7, 1949. It was not until August 1964 that the call letters of this television station were changed to those presently used, WMAQ.

The Chicago NBC affiliate was a leader in the TV broadcast industry. WMAQ was the first television station to offer a 10 P.M. news program. It was

ILLINOIS HISTORY / MARCH 1993 55


the first commercial television station to offer a college course for credit, the first to broadcast all its shows in color, and the first to use robot cameras.

The Mart was not originally equipped for a television station. "It was a madhouse of writing and aging equipment," one historian noted. A new home was needed for WMAQ. Between 1985 and 1989, the NBC Tower was built. The Tower was the first completed building in Cityfront Center and contributed to the classic Chicago skyline. More than $1.8 million of television equipment was installed in the studios. At the time of completion it was considered to be state-of-the-art and made the station the most up-to-date in Chicagoland. Construction of the facility permitted more Chicago-based shows. WMAQ moved from the Mart into the NBC Tower in the fall of 1989. The move to the NBC Tower, probably the biggest in television history, was accomplished in one weekend.

TV programming over the years has reflected changes in household demographics. Shelley Cagner of the Arbitron rating services noted that in the 1950s popular primetime shows were mostly personality, variety, game/challenge, and theater. The 1980s popular primetime shows were mostly sitcoms, miniseries, evening soaps, news, and theatrical films. In the history of WMAQ, a variety of programs has been offered to its viewing audience covering news, sports, weather, entertainment, public announcements, and documentaries. "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie" and "The Milton Berle Show" have been replaced by famous talk shows like "Jenny Jones" and "Jerry Springer." Sports coverage of the World Series has expanded into sport shows like "Chicago Bears Weekly" and "Sports Sunday." News programming has expanded from a 10 P.M. broadcast to more frequent and longer newscasts at 6 A.M., 4:30 P.M., 5 P.M., and 10 P.M.

"In 1949 a rating system was set up to determine the popular programs of the year," noted one historian. Television stations now use ratings to see how much companies will pay for commercials and what the public likes to watch on television. A.C. Nielsen Rating Service and Arbitron Rating Service are used by WMAQ. Rick Kogan, a TV/radio critic for the Chicago Tribune, in an interview with an Arbitron representative, discovered the importance of ratings and shares distributed by rating services. One Thursday in 1989 a rating was taken for the 10 P.M. news. WMAQ was the winner with an 18.7 rating and 30 shares, followed by WBBM, Chicago's CBS affiliate.

"Each local rating point represents 31,000 households. A share represents the percent of sets actually in use, "noted a journalist. "In local ratings races, the most important takes place at 10 P.M., when the three network affiliates (WMAQ-TV, WBBM-TV and WLS-TV) do battle with their principal news shows," wrote one journalist. Ratings races take place between the best news anchor teams during "sweeps periods" three times yearly. Arbitron and A.C. Nielsen measure the stations and programs that people are watching.

Merchandise Mart The Merchandise Mart in Chicago was, among other things, home to WMAQ radio and television. The NBC affiliate moved to the new NBC Tower in 1989.

"The technology, the automation, and the economics have changed television," says Roy Cone, a former WGN employee. WMAQ has been transformed from a radio station based in the Merchandise Mart into a state-of-the-art television broadcasting system located in one of Chicago's most beautiful skyscrapers. WMAQ programming has increased from 15 hours a week of telecasting to more than 135 hours. The ratings are used to make programming better for the audience. WMAQ is not only important for Chicago viewers but has helped set national standards within the industry.[From Architectural Record, Ap. 1990; Business Week, Jan 9, 1989; student historian's interview with Shelley Cagner, Dec. 10, 1992; Chicago Tribune, Jan. 9, Ap. 23, May 16, 1989, June 14, 1991, Nov. 30, 1992; and student historian's interview with Carmen Vallego, Nov. 9, 1992.]

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