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Channel 2 hopes to be No. 1 with new studios
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

The new Channel 2 assignment desk will be at the center of an open, two-floor area including the newsroom and computer decks to augment the station's Web site.


Courtesy of CBS

The new skyscraper at the old Block 37 site downtown will be anchored by a new WBBM Channel 2 street-level studio at the corner of Washington and Dearborn.


Courtesy of CBS

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Published: 3/20/2008 12:13 AM | Updated: 3/20/2008 7:58 AM

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WBBM Channel 2 is hoping that if it builds it, viewers will come - both literally and at home via the remote.

"It," in this case, is Channel 2's impressive new studios, to be located at the corner of Washington and Dearborn downtown, right across from Daley Plaza. With the top TV stations in town all enhancing their profiles in recent years with street-level studios, Channel 2's looks to be the best of the bunch.

"This is an amazing opportunity for us to showcase the station," said President and General Manager Joe Ahern on a recent walk-through.

WMAQ Channel 5 was the first to add an auxiliary street studio, on Michigan Avenue, within walking distance of its home base at NBC Tower. Then WLS Channel 7 added a high-tech street-level studio at its 190 N. State location, with the nice touch of turning it so that the news anchors face out to see the crowd outside, rather than turning their backs to the on-site audience.

Yet Channel 2's street-scene studios - which will accommodate the entire station over five floors in the southwest corner of the building - are the first in town being constructed all new from the ground up. Upon being placed in charge of the low-rated CBS affiliate in 2002, one of the first things Ahern did was inquire with Mayor Daley about the so-called Lot 37 bordered by State, Randolph, Dearborn and Washington. Although the project hit numerous snags, and even changed developers in midstream after construction was begun, Channel 2 kept its portion on schedule and plans to move in and begin broadcasting from the new site in July.

The rest of the building, including retail stores and new entrances to the CTA subway below, will probably be operational by the end of the year. The lag in that side of things, though, didn't slow the Channel 2 construction, as it was already its own project within the overall project.

"We're a building inside the building, for security," said Tom Schnecke, vice president of broadcast operations and engineering.

Schnecke helped with Channel 5's move into NBC Tower when he was with the NBC affiliate, so he's had experience building a station from the ground up. Yet things have changed greatly in the TV industry just in the time since NBC Tower was built in the late '80s. Channel 2's new facilities will not only have state-of-the-art high-definition cameras and digital editing - "We're not bringing much with us," Ahern said, "because everything will be new" - but the newsroom includes decks of computers to keep the all-important station Web site up to date. Like all media companies, Channel 2 has thrown itself into the Web, and notched 8.5 million hits in January.

Schnecke has had to anticipate not just how that alters the station's needs, but what will be needed in the decades to come. "It's really just trying to see as far down as we can as far as where the business is going," he said.

Yet, while Schnecke has overseen much of the nuts and bolts in tailoring the new digs to station specifications, this project is still very much Ahern's baby and a product of his vision.

When completed over the next couple of months, it figures to be extraordinary. The station will have a huge wide-screen, stadium-style TV on the façade facing Daley Plaza and the Picasso. "This is sort of a home-court advantage," Ahern said. "It's like a home game for us every time there is a major event here." Now it's simply up to one of the city's major sports teams to oblige with a title rally.

The anchor of the station will be the huge 45-by-90-foot studio on the street at the corner of Dearborn and Washington. The main anchor desk will be set back and face out. A weather desk and sports desk will be set in the corners, with the sports desk backed by a vertical plasma TV for highlights. There will also be an interview deck closer to the street, so that an interview can be conducted with the subjects' backs to the windows and the crowd outside - a more conventional "Today"-style setup.

That's just the beginning, however. The second-floor newsroom, also with an open view of the street, looks eye to eye with the Picasso, and an open staircase leads up to the third floor. All station operations - not just newsgathering, but ad sales and the like - will be in Channel 2's five-floor portion of the larger skyscraper.

There will be no radio presence in the building (all the local CBS Radio stations will probably wind up in the Prudential Building eventually), but there is a larger interior studio that could accommodate a daily talk show or a visiting or permanent production of CBS' allied King World syndicate.

In many ways, Ahern said, this has been the culmination of his career, building on the complete overhaul he oversaw at Channel 7 while running the ABC affiliate in the late '80s. "I could write a couple of books about it," he said of the six-year process.

It means an end to Channel 2's historic studios at McClurg Court, which of course housed the famous Studio One where the first televised Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate took place in 1960. But the building has been decaying for years, and a move was inevitable. With CBS' backing, Ahern made the most of it.

"After 55 years, the time has come," Ahern said. "We did it right," he added, "for the next 50 years."