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Randy Michaels & Bill Cunningham -- The Tribune Sleaze Continues

The "old boy" network is alive and well within Tribune Tower lately. With Tribune CEO Randy Michaels overseeing all key hires, he makes sure that the overwhelming majority of hires have one trait: they had to have worked with him at Jacor Radio and/or Clear Channel Communications, the last two companies he ran. Most of the the Tribune's big hires in the last two years, worked with Michaels at both companies. Are the people being hired qualified for the positions they are being installed as? Do they have any experience at all in those positions? In the vast majority of cases, the answer is a resounding NO. What matters is that Michaels is taking care of his old pals, who are surprisingly loyal to him. They also tend to be well cared for financially with hefty salaries and bonuses, despite the fact the Tribune is mired in a bankruptcy battle.

The latest Tribune Company high profile hire is not a surprise at all. The Tribune will be producing a television talk show starring Cincinnati conservative radio talk show host, Bill Cunningham. Cunningham was approached by Randy Michaels and Sean Compton, Tribune Broadcasting's President of Programming (and another former ex-Jacor/Clear Channel buddy), to do this talk show many months ago. Although "officially," the idea was to shoot a few episodes, test them out and then see if it should progress from that point, there was never any doubt that this show was going to progress on.

The show, which was first called "Willie" and then changed to "Big Willie," filmed five test episodes in June. In July, four out of the five episodes aired on a handful of Tribune-owned television stations. One of the episodes, where Cunningham and the show's staff allegedly verbally abused some child beauty pageant contestants, along with their mothers, and encouraged the audience to do the same, was not shown. That taping has resulted in Cunningham and the Tribune Company being sued by five women. They claimed they were misled into appearing on the show and complained about the abusive treatment they and their minor daughters received from Cunningham and staffers. The other four episodes that did actually air, contained show topics as "classy" as: grandmothers into porn, pregnant girls who like to smoke & drink, a look at conjoined twins, and a show where Cunningham verbally abuses heavy women and makes an morbidly obese woman eat like a dog off the floor.

The test run of "Big Willie" failed the test. The show brought the Tribune Company universally horrific reviews from the media and the blogging world. Worse than that, the show brought universally horrific ratings, hurting every station it aired on -- with one lone exception: Cincinnati. For some odd reason the rest of the country cannot fathom, the denizens of that town treat Cunningham as some sort of demi-god, giving his AM radio show consistently great ratings and bringing in decent television ratings for this test run.

The fact that the show was deeply disliked by by all American television viewers (with the exception of Cincinnatians, whose taste in media figures is clearly flawed) means nothing to Randy Michaels and his "posse." Cunningham is one of his cronies and he is going to do what he can to make sure he is well paid by the Tribune Company. This show will go into production no matter what. This was the plan all along and they will not stray from that plan.

It has been no secret that Randy Michaels, along with Sean Compton and Kevin Metheny, the Programming Director of WGN-AM (and yes... he's yet another ex-Jacor/Clear Channel crony), have been trying to hire Bill Cunningham away from his Cincinnati radio home of WLW-AM to have him work in Chicago at WGN-AM, the only Tribune-owned radio station. They thought they had him locked up a couple of months ago, but Cunningham soon after changed his mind and decided to stay in Cincinnati. He then re-upped with Clear Channel to continue on as WLW-AM host and host of a Clear Channel-owned syndicated weekend show. That doesn't mean that Michaels & company are done trying, though.

Word from some insiders is that they still hope to make Cunningham fall in love with Chicago -- a town he has publicly bad-mouthed for the last couple of years -- or at least, have Cunningham fall in love with the idea of working closely with Michaels and his pals here in Chicago. When taping for Cunningham's television show begins, it will be entirely shot in Chicago at WGN-TV's studios. On those days, Cunningham will do his WLW-AM radio show from an unused studio within WGN-AM. The ex-Jacor/Clear Channel crew are still trying to figure out a way to talk Cunningham into workng the early afternoon shift on WGN-AM, even if they have to keep attempting to convince him for the next year or so.

Bill Cunningham used logic in his decision to not come to WGN-AM. He has family in Cincinnati. His wife works for the State there. He owns restaurants and homes there. Most of all, he is well established and weirdly adored there. Chicago offers him none of that, nor will it. He will not be hailed as a local hero here. He would not be a top radio host here. That won't stop Michaels and his minions from trying, though.

The television show will not air now until September of 2011. In addition to working on getting Cunningham to reconsider WGN-AM, that gives the Tribune Company time to find a distributor and try to sell the TV show to non-Tribune-owned stations.

Due to some concerns by Tribune television insiders, the name "Big Willie" has been dropped from the show. The phallic pun was not found to be funny to the rest of the country. The name was changed back to "Willie" for a while, but they now seem to have settled on "The Bill Cunningham Show" as a title.

There were many complaints about the extremely cheap looking set. They now have about a year to put something together that doesn't look like a cardboard backdrop from a grade school play.

The Tribune Company press release today about "The Bill Cunningham Show" has drawn laughter -- and not because it was purposely funny, either. In it, Sean Compton talked about the "successful test launch" for the show. Apparently, plummeting ratings that hurt their stations, appalling reviews and an embarrassing lawsuit now constitutes "success" with Tribune Tower since Randy's boys took power. Compton also called Cunningham's raunchy hour of programming "a strong complement to the existing programs on our television stations." Either that is a slap in the face to all of the other programming on Tribune-owned stations or Compton has a low opinion about what his 23 television stations really air each day.

Cunningham himself offered up this gem of a quote for the press release: "I am proud to be an integral part of Tribune's new original daytime programming initiative. Chicago soon will be vacant of all existing daytime talk. I am humbled and honored to follow in the footsteps of the great broadcasters that filled the hallways and studios at WGN-TV's Bradley Place in Chicago, once home to 'The Phil Donahue Show.'" By bringing up Oprah Winfrey (his reference to "vacant of all existing daytime talk" takes a poke at Oprah's leaving in September 2011) and Phil Donahue, two of the classiest acts in daytime television, and trying to compare himself to them, is a bit insulting. While both Winfrey & Donahue did have a short period where they allowed their shows to turn trashy, both were wise enough to stop the trash and turn their shows into positive influences for audiences. Cunningham, upon personal urging from Randy Michaels, is quite happy to put out a sleazy and barren embarrassment of a show that appeals to the lowest common denominator of viewers.

Unlike "Jerry Springer," "Maury" and "The Steve Wilkos Show," similar shows which some Tribune stations already air, "The Bill Cunningham Show" is 100% owned by Tribune Broadcasting. That means any bit of profit they can squeeze out of it, stays entirely within the company. As long as the stations can find advertisers willing to pay to be seen by whatever audience a show like that can dig up, it means money to Randy Michaels.

If there is anything that Randy Michaels likes more than his old buddies from Jacor/Clear Channel and low-brow entertainment... it's money.

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