The stars of local television in the days of yore were, besides the anchors, your friends and neighbors. You might see the neighborhood tykes gathered around the kooky children’s show host in the station’s studio, the lady from down the block preparing her famous meatloaf on the local cooking program, or your uncle bowling for a little beer money.
The arrival of the TV networks, the escalated quality of televised sports, and syndicated programming squeezed the homespun stuff into the margins. Yet some unique concepts with special talents—WBAL Baltimore’s Romper Room, WLS Chicago’s Oprah Winfrey-helmed A.M. Chicago, KPTV Portland’s Better, to name a few—went on to play on a much larger stage.
The majority may never air beyond their market’s borders, but a fresh crop of stationlevel programs, tailored to local tastes, are alive and thriving. Whether it’s ghost-hunting in Jacksonville, wrestling in the Pacific Northwest, a scripted cop drama in Norfolk or sex talk in South Beach, they’re creative, they define the local brand and they provide the station with self determination and ad inventory.
We scanned the small screens from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, to find the more creative local shows in America. Here’s what we stumbled on.
SCARIER THAN THE CUBS
SVENGOOLIE, WCIU CHICAGO
If there’s a face of creative local TV in America, it may just sport pale white makeup, thick black eye shadow and a faux beard like a horse’s tail. Take low-budget horror films and a host in a fright wig and top hat who hangs out in a coffin, and you’ve got Svengoolie—the Chicago institution that’s cheesier than deep-dish pizza. Played by Rich Koz, Svengoolie hosts the flicks and offers up corny jokes before and after the breaks; the cornier the quip, the more rubber chickens thrown at him by the crew.
Svengoolie launched on WFLD in 1970 with Jerry Bishop in the title role. In 1979, Koz—a former writer on the show—debuted as Son ofSvengoolie until Fox bought the station in ’86 and cut Sven lose.
Neal Sabin, Weigel Broadcasting vice chair, brought the program back on WCIU in ’94, with Svengoolie hosting a lively lineup of Universal horror movies. “It’s a real Chicago local thing,” says Sabin. “There’s a lot of local humor and color.”
Svengoolie airs 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturdays, averaging a 0.6 household rating and 2 share, and runs on the Me-TV network too. How much of an institution is Svengoolie? The Illinois General Assembly has declared this Oct. 31 Svengoolie/Rich Koz Day statewide. “It’s not slick, it’s homespun,” says Sabin. “There’s so little of this kind of show left.”
RABID CHICKEN IN STEPHEN KING COUNTRY
KICK START, WPXT PORTLAND (MAINE)
Of all the freewheeling shows on WPXT— a travel program, a music show, a teen quiz bowl called Mest Up—Kick Start takes the creative crown. If Lewis Carroll had dreamed up a game show after downing a stiff glass of laudanum, it might look like Kick Start. A local power-punk band does the theme song, before Norm the Donkey and Danger the Rabid Chicken saunter around the set. (Norm shows support for the players, who are middle school students, while Danger menaces and mocks.) The kids battle in a trivia game, along with the “Buildy Thingy” round, which recently saw the players compete to build the highest tower with clothespins, while blindfolded. There may be a cameo from Jose the Badly Animated Worm.
In its sixth season, Kick Start airs Thursdays at 7 p.m. on the local CW, and reruns six times a week.
Instead of walking off with departing prizes, the losing contestants don ponchos and goggles and enter the Pit of Doom for a little “Slop Drop Showdown” sliming. The winner gets a shot at a college scholarship—thanks to a local investment plan sponsor—and avoids the slime.
GOOD GOLLY, AUNT MOLLY!
AUNT MOLLY & FRIENDS, WOWT OMAHA
Cheery Janine Knop and her talking dog Rusty are the stars of this weekly children’s show, which launched on WOWT—an NBC affiliate and the lone Big Four station on our list—in January. Aunt Molly is taped at a shopping mall in front of an audience comprised mostly of children sitting on beanbag chairs. The show features songs, guests, discussions on good behavior, animated interstitials and visits to local sites, such as a firehouse.
“It’s kind of like a Romper Room-style show, an old-style show where you take your kids down to the station to be in the audience,” says Mike Fass, WOWT director of media programming, production and technology.
Metro Media Group produces Molly, which has settled in at Sundays at 10 a.m. after premiering at 6 a.m.—a tough spot even for toddlers. Encouraged by a 1 household rating and growing, Metro Media is looking to expand the concept to Detroit.
“The emphasis on local was real important to me when I became the general manager,” says Vic Richards, WOWT boss. “Mike [Fass] and I both really felt it was something that was important to our community.”
FULL DRAW MADNESS, KOZL SPRINGFIELD (MO.)
KOZL lost its Fox affiliation in 2011 and went full-on indie. That includes weekend primetime blocks dedicated to local heartland passions: hunting on Saturdays, country and bluegrass music on Sundays. The six-show hunting block includes Full Draw Madness, which is dedicated to bow hunting deer, turkey and other wildlife. Reads FullDrawMadness.com: “Spring finds us chasing those ole longbeards, then it’s into summer where you’ll find us on the rivers and lakes with fishing poles in hand. Then comes the granddaddy of all seasons, FALL.”
Full Draw Madness’ lead-in is, naturally, Bowdacious Outdoors. “In this part of the country, hunting and fishing is huge,” says Leo Henning, KOLR-KOZL VP and general manager. “This is what local TV is all about.”
Nexstar stations don’t get Nielsens, and Henning doesn’t sweat the numbers. “Ratings are not that important [for such shows],” says Henning. “It’s more important for us to make a local programming statement.”
PIN-TEREST IN PORTLAND
PORTLAND WRESTLING UNCUT, KPDX PORTLAND
Local professional wrestling was a mainstay on TV before the big outfits gobbled up the smaller players, but KPDX keeps the tradition alive with Portland Wrestling Uncut. The show runs Saturdays at midnight on the Oregon MyNetworkTV station. “A lot of dads grew up with fond memories of going to watch Portland wrestling in the early days,” says Patrick Mc- Creery, who recently left his KPTV-KPDX GM post for a corporate position.
Until last year, KPTV produced the show inhouse— hosted by the legendary Rowdy Roddy Piper, with a studio audience. The new season is produced by West Coast Wrestling Connection, but still delivers local legends, including Big Ugly and “Hot Shot” Danny Duggan, with national wrestlers, such as Kahagas the Tokyo Monster and Jake “the Snake” Roberts, turning up to throw down now and then too.
Uncut does around a 1.5-1.8 household rating, and close to a 1 in the demo. But it’s not just young males tuning in. “It’s family friendly,” says McCreery. “No swearing, no blood.”
LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX!
GET SOME!, WSFL MIAMI
Get Some! got its start as a sex segment in the WSFL Miami morning show. When it elicited an “overwhelmingly positive” reaction, according to Dave Aizer, host/writer/producer, Get Some! got its own show in January. Recent segments include a trip to a porn festival, speed dating and using photography to spice up your horizontal doings. Dr. Lisa Paz cohosts.
Get Some! airs 5:30 a.m. Fridays and late Saturday at 1 a.m.—moving to midnight in the fall. It averages around a 0.5 household rating and delivers—surprise, surprise— young males. “It’s done pretty well, considering it takes a while for a new show to get off the ground,” says Aizer.
Sponsors include the “gentleman’s club” Cheetah and fertilization outfit IVF Florida.
Management at the local CW was on board with the nookie rookie pretty much from the get-go. “It definitely required a few conversations,” Aizer says, “but I think it was a pretty easy sell.”
Having a doctor on the show, he adds, made it clear to management and viewers alike that it wouldn’t just be “dirty jokes for a half-hour.”
SOMETHING ‘WILD’ IN THE SOONER STATE
WILD CARD, KSBI OKLAHOMA CITY
A general manager who is also the creator, executive producer and writer on a local game show? That’s the case in Oklahoma City, where Vince Orza, president and CEO of KSBI, trots out Wild Card Monday through Friday.
Featuring trivia questions set to a card game concept (there are good and bad jokers that add and subtract points from contestants’ scores), Wild Card features local residents as contestants. The show debuted in the MyNet station’s 6:30 p.m. slot in November 2013 and features music, set and software created by Oklahomans. “Everything about Wild Card screams Oklahoma,” the entrepreneurial Orza (who twice ran for governor) said when it launched. “We are local, we are Oklahoma and we showcase Oklahomans.”
Orza is sure to include a big plug for sponsors, such as Bob Mills Furniture.
The show does a 1-2 household rating against what Orza calls “pretty heavy national syndicated competition”—6:30 choices on the OK City dial include ABC World News and ET. He’s in conversations with syndicators to take Wild Card out to other stations.
“All in all,” says Orza, “it’s a home run.”
LET’S CAPTURE CASPER!
LOCAL HAUNTS, WCWJ JACKSONVILLE
WCWJ was on a mission to increase its local sports and entertainment programming when producer Steve Christian, a dead-serious ghost hunter in his spare time, approached GM Marc Hefner about a local ghost show. Hefner figured the concept would never fly, but was blown away by Christian’s pilot, and Local Haunts was hatched.
In its fourth season, Local Haunts has Christian, his fellow ghost hunters and his impressive trove of gear tracking down apparitions in the market and beyond (Savannah is a favorite of Christian’s and, seemingly, some ghosts). The segments have a travelogue flavor. “It’s cool local stories about the locations,” says Hefner. “And Steve somehow manages to find evidence of the paranormal everywhere he goes.”
WCWJ double-runs Local Haunts at 9 p.m. Sundays. The CW outlet does not get Nielsens; Hefner says it does a 0.3 to 0.7 on the Rentrak scale, meaning about 5,000 people watch.
Local Haunts is a brand-definer for the hyperlocal “YourJax” station. “None of our local shows do gangbusters, but collectively it’s a nice number,” says Hefner, “and generates a fair amount of revenue.”
MORE SIPOWICZ THAN SIMONE
PRECINCT 757, COX 11 HAMPTON ROADS (VA.)
Tired of cop dramas whose detectives look like swimsuit models instead of, well, true detectives? That’s not the problem with Precinct 757, a police procedural airing on cable’s Cox 11 Hampton Roads (Va.). The actors—volunteers, like most everyone working on Precinct 757—actually look like the guys and gals in the cop shop down the street.
Precinct 757 is one of the exceedingly rare locally produced, locally airing scripted dramas. Resembling something between a cable drama and a student film, 757 recently concluded its seven-episode first season, and creator Russ Fulmore has begun shooting season two. Shooting on location and out of an empty squad room at the Poquoson (Va.) police department, episodes cost around $25,000-$30,000 to produce. The show does not get ratings.
“It’s an amalgamation of all the cop shows I liked as a kid,” says Fulmore, mentioning Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. “There’s some action, some drama, a little comedy—a little of everything.”
Fulmore quit the hotel business to fulfill a lifelong dream of creating TV. In the works: a couple of sitcoms and a feature film.
NEW YORK HOSTS SUPER ‘BOWL’
HUCK FINN’S CAPITAL REGION BOWLING SHOW, WNYA ALBANY (N.Y.)
Local bowling on TV is more elusive these days than a 300 game. WNYA keeps the tradition alive with Huck Finn’s Capital Region Bowling Show, which shifted to the MyNet in the state capital after nine years on Fox affiliate WXXA. It is the only locally produced bowling show in the country, according to Bowlers Journal International.
Art Hunsinger, former WXXA news operations manager, is creator and executive producer. How did Albany become only U.S. market with its own bowling show? “There’s a long history of televised bowling in the market,” Hunsinger says, mentioning what was reportedly the Professional Bowlers Association’s first national TV event in the region 50-plus years ago.
A group of local alley proprietors back the show, as does furniture retailer Huck Finn’s. By shooting two installments at a time, Hunsinger keeps production costs to around $1,500 a session. Airing Sunday mornings, Capital Region Bowling Show’s ratings average around a 1 in households.
“People like local,” says Hunsinger. “If you put together the right local show, with good production values, you’re going to capture an audience.”
…AND MORE TV OPTIONS THAT REALLY GO TO TOWN
If a station airs one truly offbeat local show, it almost stands to reason it’s got another one or two in its programming stable. Besides its bow-hunting program, KOZL Springfield gives WCIU Chicago’s goth creep Svengoolie a run for his money with The New Uncle Gregory Horror Hour, which features “creepy, crawly, public-domain film goodness” along with Uncle Gregory, Chant the Skull, Ted the Cameraman, Momo the Camerabeast, Raven and Baron Bones.
Comedy sketches round out the Saturday night, young male friendly show. “It’s nuts,” said Leo Henning, KOZL VP and general manager. “It’s really wacko.”
WCIU has Green Screen Adventures, where a Pufnstuf-ian troupe of actors in costumes help teach kids to read. A faux news anchor throws to a variety of talking objects—a desk, a toilet, a tomato sandwich with a Scottish accent—for life lessons for the thigh-high set. “It’s better than the real breaking news we get,” snarked one YouTube commenter.
Down Jacksonville way, WCWJ airs YourJax Roller Girls, which shows the rough and tumble world of flat track roller derby. A recent episode featured the fearsome First Coast Fatales against the Duval Derby Dames.
In Albany, N.Y., Michael Adamec of WNYT-WNYA produces On the Green, which features visits to golf courses in the area; Martin, Harding & Mazzotti Capital Region Pet Show, which showcases animals for adoption and is hosted by station meteorologist Jason Caterina; and The Keeler Car Show, named for a local auto dealership. “I’m trying to be the Mark Burnett of upstate New York,” Adamec said.
The stations producing such programs are typically independent or are affiliated with The CW or MyNetworkTV (and ratings are secondary compared to how well the series contribute to the station’s personality). A Fox affiliate until 2011, KOZL will align with MyNet this fall. “It’s a kick to be able to do that kind of programming,” said Henning. “When we parted ways with Fox, we were able to do more of it.”
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