A little more than a year after its launch, WLS-Channel 7’s “Windy City Live” is hitting its stride.
There was plenty to be skeptical about when former Channel 7 general manager Emily Barr announced some two years ago that she intended to replace “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” airing at 9 a.m., with a new local live daily talk show with an in-studio audience.
Always up for a challenge, Barr wasn’t interested in merely picking from one of a host of syndicated shows to fill the huge void that would be left after Winfrey exited the daily talk show business.
Instead, Barr was determined to show Channel 7 could create a smart, local product of its own — much like Channel 7’s morning show was in the 1980s, before Winfrey, its host then, found a massive national following.
Now, just a year out of the gate, “Windy City Live” has eclipsed all competition in the ratings in the 9 a.m. hour. And even more impressively, on many days “WCL” is only a couple of ratings points behind the numbers “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was pulling in its last months on air.
A visit to “WCL” last Friday made clear why the show is catching on with local audiences. One quickly gathers “WCL” is now a very-well-oiled product put together five days a week by on-air talent, producers and a studio crew who appear to enjoy working together.
Last Friday, legendary performer Barry Manilow was the guest of honor, and lead producers Marlaine Selip and Cindy Patrasso decided to devote the show’s entire hour-long running time to all things Barry.
The live audience was comprised of 60 of Manilow’s most ardent fans (“fanilows” as they are known) from the Chicago area. Many of those audience members, who were standing in line waiting to be seated when we arrived, were carrying boxes containing gently used musical instruments. The instruments were about to be given to the Chicago public school system — part of a national project Manilow initiated to help further music education in local schools.
With 15 minutes until “WCL” went live, Patrasso was busy warming up the audience and emphatically reminding them not to be shy about showing their passion for Manilow and his music whenever they were cued to do so by the stage manager roaming the studio set.
Patrasso also didn’t forget to remind audience members to tell their friends and family about “WCL.” Every little bit helps, after all, when a show is new and looking to expand its audience base.
Soon, “WCL” was in progress, and co-hosts Ryan Chiaverini and Val Warner wasted no time introducing their guest. Manilow gingerly walked down a short staircase (very “Hello, Dolly”-like, he later said) and perched himself on a stool next to the co-hosts.
The chemistry between “WCL” co-hosts Chiaverini and Warner was far from perfect in the show’s early months last year. But it has improved considerably since then — though Warner remains the more dominant personality of the two. Chiaverini, however, has found a comfortable niche and an easy way of injecting his own brand of humor into the proceedings.
What was best about this Manilow edition of “WCL” was the ease with which the co-hosts managed to ask sharp questions and elicit interesting answers from their guest. The co-hosts did an especially great job of getting Manilow to open up on the subject of Justin Bieber and how overwhelming fame might affect the young star now that he has found it at such an early age.
The show smoothly segued from talk segments to musical interludes featuring Manilow at the piano to other snippets featuring audience members. And before any major calamities happened, the closing credits were running.
“Windy City Live” may not wind up making the kind of history its predecessor “AM Chicago” did with Winfrey at its helm many years ago. But with a savvy mix of local and out-of-town celebrities, “WCL” is indeed entertaining and satisfying local viewers — so much so that it is now No. 1 in the ratings in its time slot.
Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com