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Toned down 'Today Show' hits Chicago

Big picture, not much went right for the “Today Show's” planned broadcast from Chicago this week. 

First, terrible, significant news happened in Oklahoma, meaning stars Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie would never make it to the live location in front of The Bean, or to the city at all. 

Then, Wednesday, the scaled-back local broadcast was greeted not only by the expected cheesecake, deep-dish pizza and Luvabulls, but by a persistent Chicago-style rain soaking the crowd and adding a touch of drippy surrealism to the reflections of the city seen in Anish Kapoor's iconic sculpture. 

But, although the surprisingly dense crowd got just 60 minutes of show after 9 a.m. — instead of what was to have been the full, three-hour telecast — did its members still whoop and holler, both on their own and at the frequent exhortation of “Today” stage manager Dave Auerbach?

You betcha. 

Did “Today” final-hour hosts Willie Geist and Natalie Morales hear their first names called roughly 7,438 times by people angling for a photo or just a beam of celebrity attention?

At least that often. 

And are area Walgreens and CVS stores now out of posterboard because live-morning-show devotees needed to tell America things such as “Willie 4 President” and, curiously, “I'm from Chesterton”?

They probably are. 

Charities (The Cara Program) and commercial ventures (Fannie May) alike angled for whatever publicity bonanza a background sign on a morning show brings. But the clear winner in the sign sweepstakes was Bulls mascot Benny, who toted one that read “I'm holding a sign.” 

Though the red furry was an invited guest, his was a crisp satire of the up-at-dawn, crush-of-the-crowd fanaticism these shows still attract, to the puzzlement even of people who like watching the shows on TV. 

Why get up early to be a living, hollering backdrop, the very picture of unreserved, perhaps unquestioning enthusiasm?

Payback, explained Jillian Forsty, a 28-year-old restaurant manager from the North Center neighborhood perched up front against the metal railing. 

“They wake us up every morning. We figured we could repay the favor,” she said. 

And for Forsty, the relationship runs deep. “Willie Geist and ('Weekend Today' anchor) Lester Holt are the only men allowed in my bedroom, other than this man right here,” she said, indicating her patient and perhaps less enthusiastic fiance. 

“We want to meet Willie,” said Ali Richard, 27, a marketing manager from Streeterville.

She and roommate Amy Vorel held the “4 President” sign, and another that read “Big Willie Style.”

Why? “He's funny. He's got great hair “ said Vorel.  

Geist also has local ties: He was born in Evanston while his father, Bill, now a correspondent for “CBS Sunday Morning,” was a standout writer for the Suburban Trib, this newspaper's former sister publication. 

Another ex-Chicagoan, Holt, the longtime WBBM-Ch. 2 anchor, was supposed to be on hand at Millennium Park but got called away to report and host for NBC from Oklahoma, as Lauer and Al Roker were doing Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Holt's family was represented by son Stefan, a morning anchor at NBC's WMAQ-Ch. 5, seen during the “Today” broadcast in local cutaways and afterward chatting in Millennium Park with Geist and Morales.  

And back in New York City, former WFLD-Ch. 32 anchor Tamron Hall was filling in for Morales at the “Today” newsdesk, calling her home of 10 years “one of the best cities in the country.” 

What else did the “Today” audience learn about Chicago?

Truth be told, not much that even viewers in Orlando — where Geist, Morales and Al Roker will be Thursday — haven't heard 100 times before: blues, flavored popcorn, The Second City, Cubs and Sox, “Sweet Home Chicago” and Sinatra singing about “my kind of town …”  

Local radio hosts Eric (Ferguson) and Kathy (Hart) fronted a tour-of-Chicago piece that had perky production values and the good sense to include a Chicago River architecture tour. 

Reporter Kevin Tibbles' piece on organizations battling against the violence afflicting Chicago's youth had more flash than depth, but it at least acknowledged there is more to the city than a things-to-do list for out-of-towners. 

Viewers at one point were promised a piece on Navy Pier but that, apparently, got squeezed out for time. Which is just fine: Better that the show spent the time it did with jellies, a stingray and a salamander from the Shedd Aquarium. 

Bringing on Cecily Strong, first of Oak Park, then of Second City, now of “Saturday Night Live,” meant a fresh new face. Geist even coaxed a nice moment out of her when she said that, at Second City, she never even dared to say that she wanted to be on “SNL.” “It seemed so silly” to imagine such a thing, said Strong, widely praised as a breakout star of her first season. 

Another featured local celebrity with ties to NBC was former “Apprentice” winner Bill Rancic. He is, at least, a newer addition to Chicago's list of usual suspects, not unlike The Bean. 

But the Italian restaurant he and wife Giuliana partner in, RPM Italian Restaurant, was mentioned twice, first by Rancic, then in a spotty piece on Chicago nightlife. For the record, RPM's one-star review last year from the Tribune's Phil Vettel said the place has “the look, the energy … and the inconsistent kitchen.”  

“Today's” were national cameras that Mayor Rahm Emanuel somehow did not manage to find, but his former Obama administration colleague Desiree Rogers, newly named chair of the Choose Chicago tourism effort, was a sort of stand-in, touting the virtues of the city and its desire to jump from 44 million to 50 million tourists annually. 

There were minor glitches: Morales, on air, said Chicago was the Second City for its population count, before quickly correcting herself. Geist said Evanston was “a couple of towns” up the lakefront, instead of the first one north of Chicago. 

But these weren't easy circumstances: The hosts and crew only had a few hours sleep, having flown in from Oklahoma late the night before, and they were broadcasting mostly from under a temporary tent, with laptops set up on picnic tables amid cut-up pieces of script. 

For all that, there were no evident signs of the “Today” turmoil that has been the topic of national media reports since former co-anchor Ann Curry was demoted in favor of Guthrie last year. Since then, longtime leader “Today's” overall ratings have slipped behind those of ABC's “Good Morning America.”

In Chicago, though, it's long been an uphill battle for “Today.” Even in its heyday, the NBC morning show trailed “GMA” due, largely, to ABC station WLS-Ch. 7 winning the local news battle and being home to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

“Today” came here — part of what was to have been a five-city national tour, before Oklahoma's tornadoes happened — to try to change the story about itself and boost local ratings. 

And the staff doesn't worry so much about presenting material that Chicagoans might have heard before because we are not the primary audience. “For the most part, you're thinking of the rest of the country,” Geist said in an interview afterward.  

Such a show ”is sort of presenting a postcard of what each city is,” Morales added, a fair description for the repetitive and not particularly probing nature of what gets discussed. 

While Wednesday's abbreviated broadcast was fine, as far as it went, those of us watching from Chicago can be forgiven for having our own, postcard-friendly response: “Wish you were (really) here.”

sajohnson@tribune.com | Twitter: @StevenKJohnson

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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