During the late 1940s and early 1950s, broadcast television emanating from Chicago was noted for its original ideas, inventive production techniques and significant contributions to the development of the new visual medium. Paying close attention to the problems of adjusting personal styles of writing, direction, and performance to television, and to the more theoretical questions of how television actually worked, Chicago broadcasters developed a style or technique that came to be known as the Chicago School of Television.

While all Chicago stations contributed to the School, most success with the distinctive approach to programming is attributed to the NBC owned and operated station, WNBQ. Under the leadership of station manager Jules Herbuveaux and program manager Ted Mills, the NBC outlet went further in developing formats and ideas that would capitalize on television's idiosyncrasies.

Simply stated, the Chicago School worked at creating inventive programs different from both New York's theatrical offerings or Hollywood's screenplay based productions. Utilizing an almost totally scriptless-improvisational approach reliant on interpretive camera work and creative use of scenery, costumes, props, and lighting, Chicago School practitioners produced successful programs in limited spaces with local talent and small budgets. Herbuveaux provided the freedom for his staff to create and Mills theorized and experimented with a variety of ideas including Chinese Opera, commedia dell'arte and Pirandellian forms of reality in his search for new and effective television forms.

By late 1949, Chicago's low-cost television packages were making a ratings impact with such offerings as NBC's Kukla, Fran and Ollie, ABC's Super Circus and the piano talents of Dumont's Al Morgan. By spring, 1950, the major body of Chicago School work focused on such NBC-WNBQ variety offerings as Garroway at Large, the Wayne King Show, Hawkins Falls, and Saturday Square. Children's shows consisted of an extraordinary number of award winning entries including Zoo Parade, Quiz Kids, Mr. Wizard, Ding Dong School, Pistol Pete and Jennifer and the highly rated-low budgeted cowboy film series, Cactus Jim. For comedy and drama there was Studs Terkel's Studs' Place, Portrait of America, Crisis, and Reported Missing. Actuality programming featured Walt's Workshop, The Pet Shop and R.F.D. America. Local news offered the unique Five Star Final with weatherman Clint Youle, news anchor Clifton Utley, Dorsey Connors with consumer tips, sportscaster Tom Duggan and, reflecting Herbuveaux's sense of showmanship, Herbie Mintz with musical nostalgia.

As critically acclaimed as it proved to be, elements of the Chicago School's decline were seen as early as 1950. Chicago programs were shortened and/or removed from network schedules. Key personnel left Chicago to pursue more lucrative careers in New York and Los Angeles and, in 1953, with the opening of the coast-to-coast network cable, there was less and less need for Chicago productions. In 1953, thirteen network programs originated from Chicago. By 1955, no Chicago produced programs appeared on the DuMont network. CBS and NBC had no Chicago network originations except occasional newscasts and a network radio farm program. The Chicago School of Television was becoming just a fond memory.

-Joel Sternberg


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See also Allison, Fran; Garroway at Large; Golden Age of Television; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Tillstrom, Burr