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Tribune’s Test: Cunningham in Talker

Tribune Broadcasting’s new team, with JerryKersting as president and Sean Compton as presidentof programming, is working hard to revitalizeits TV stations. The station group considers unique, locallyoriginated programming a key part of that effort.

For starters, the station group is testing a talker starringCincinnati radio host Bill “Willie” Cunningham, and has anotherone on the slate with controversial disc jockey Bubbathe Love Sponge. Beyond that, the company has its eye ondeveloping programming for all dayparts.

“Daytime is where we are dipping our toes in,” Comptonsays. “If it goes well, we’ll jump all the way in.” Tribune Co., the group's parent, is expected to emerge from bankruptcy by the end of the year.

Cunningham’s four episodes aired last week in seven markets: Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, NewOrleans, Seattle and Cunningham’s home market of Cincinnati.Tribune hopes to air the show on its stations andwork with a syndicator to distribute it nationally. Comptonsays he likes what he’s seen so far.

“I cannot be Jerry Springer, I cannot be Maury, I cannotbe Oprah—I have to be Willie,” says Cunningham, 62, alitigator for more than 30 years. “I know from doing radio formore than 25 years that you have to be true to yourself.”

Cunningham hosts a three-hour weekday talk show onWLW-AM Cincinnati, as well as a nationally syndicated radioshow on Sunday nights from 9 p.m. to midnight. Cunninghamis conservative on his radio programs, but says noneof that will bleed into his TV show. “We’ll be addressing theshow to 35- to 45-year-old women, and the problems thatpresent themselves in modern-day life,” he says.

The show’s test episodes featured a set of 58-year-old conjoinedmale twins, a 650-pound woman who aspires to weigh1,000 pounds, grandmothers who work in the phone-sex industry,and pregnant women who still drink and smoke.

Even before an episode aired, the production was suedover a segment on toddler beauty queens and their moms.Participants alleged they suffered “emotional distress and negligenttreatment,” among other claims. Tribune has pulled theepisode and cannot comment on the lawsuit.

Cunningham, however, says: “I am very confident that nomisbehavior occurred. I would be shocked if the lawsuitmeets with any success.” That said, the show’s initial topicscaused some critics to label the program exploitative evenbefore it aired.

“When you are channel-surfi ng, some of these topics mayinitially seem like a freak show, but once you land on it you’llfind it’s a serious show,” Compton says. “We want the showto be a little more serious, but to complement the rest of theprograms that our stations air every day: Maury, Jerry andSteve Wilkos.” Tribune has renewed that trio of NBC Universaltalkers through 2012.“We are very happy with the daytime lineup that NBCUgives us,” Compton adds. “[But] we rely heavily on secondruns, and we have a lot of [other shows] that don’t necessarilyfit in. We’ll continue with our existing lineup, and we’ll keepworking on creating shows that complement that. We believethat Bill Cunningham and some other shows we’re workingon will do that.”

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