Seventeen years after “Eyewitness News” disappeared from Chicago television, it’s making a comeback.
Just in time for the November sweeps, if all goes as planned, WLS-Channel 7 will go back to branding itself as “Eyewitness News,” the station’s well-known franchise from 1969 to 1996.
“The reality is ['Eyewitness News'] still has a very strong identity with this station — even though it was dropped a number of years ago,” said John Idler, president and general manager of the ABC-owned outlet. “It’s still very important to our viewers, and they associate it with ABC 7. That’s principally why we’re bringing it back.”
Idler emphasized that the goal isn’t to go retro. “The execution of this is going to be very contemporary,” he said. “It is not going to be a look back to ‘Eyewitness News.’ It is going to be a look forward to what ‘Eyewitness News’ means to viewers today.”
Asked about the timing of the move, Idler said it was “driven by a desire to freshen up the look of the station.” It also comes as ABC 7 is battling to retain its status as the top-rated news operation in the market. After more than a quarter-century of local news dominance, its margins of victory have been shrinking and, in some key demographics, have evaporated.
“Eyewitness News” was conceived in the late 1960s to emphasize the role of the reporter on the street and project the personalities of the newscasters. Credited with inventing the format was Al Primo, a news director in Philadelphia, who went on to become its chief proponent and an influential news consultant. All of the ABC-owned stations, including WLS, quickly embraced the concept, presenting their newscasts in a looser, more conversational manner than viewers had ever seen. Critics at the time derided it as “happy talk,” a term coined by Morry Roth, the Chicago bureau chief for Variety. Ratings skyrocketed.
By 1996, 27 years after “Eyewitness News” debuted in Chicago, ABC mandated that its stations conform to co-branding with the network. “It’s critical in a cluttered TV environment to have a strong identity,” Alan Cohen, ABC executive vice president of marketing, told affiliates. “The time is now to create a packaged look that tells viewers they are watching ABC.”
While the “Eyewitness News” label survived at ABC stations in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, it vanished overnight in Chicago, where everything was rebranded as “ABC 7.”
But Idler cited a research study commissioned by the station that showed “Eyewitness News” never really went away in the public’s mind: “We got a very strong sense that it resonated strongly with the Chicago market,” he said.