WLS-TV, virtual channel 7 (UHF digital channel 44), is an ABC owned-and-operated television station located in Chicago, Illinois, United States. The station is owned by the ABC Owned Television Stations subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company. WLS-TV maintains studio facilities located on North State Street in the Chicago Loop, and its transmitter is located atop the Willis Tower on South Wacker Drive.
The station first signed on the air on September 17, 1948 as WENR-TV. It was the third television station to sign on in the Chicago market (behind WGN-TV (channel 9), which debuted six months earlier in April, and WBKB (channel 4, now WBBM-TV on channel 2), which signed on in September 1946). As one of the original ABC-owned stations on channel 7, it was the second station to begin operations, after WJZ-TV (now WABC-TV) in New York City (its sister stations in Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles signed on within a year of WENR's launch). The station's original call letters were taken from co-owned radio station WENR (890 AM), which served as an affiliate of the ABC Radio Network (WENR would eventually merge with WLS-AM, with which it shared a frequency under a time-sharing arrangement until ABC purchased a 50% interest in WLS in 1954).
In February 1953, ABC merged with United Paramount Theatres (UPT), the former theater division of Paramount Pictures. UPT subsidiary Balaban and Katz owned WBKB (which shared a CBS affiliation with WGN-TV). The newly merged American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, as the company was known then, could not keep both stations because of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations then enforced that forbade the common ownership of two television stations licensed to the same market. As a result, WBKB's channel 4 license was sold to CBS, which subsequently changed that station's call letters to WBBM-TV; that outlet would move to VHF channel 2 several months later on July 5, 1953. The old WBKB's on-air and behind-the-scenes staff stayed at the new WBBM-TV, while the WBKB call letters and management moved to channel 7 (from 1965 to 1968, a "-TV" suffix was included in the station's calls, modifying it to WBKB-TV).
Sterling "Red" Quinlan served as the station's general manager from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, and became a giant in early Chicago television. Quinlan was instrumental in starting the careers of Tom Duggan, Frank Reynolds and Bob Newhart. The station courageously aired The Tom Duggan Show in the mid-1950s, which became the most popular show in the Chicago market, far outdrawing other network competition. Channel 7 had its call letters changed to WLS-TV on October 7, 1968, named after WLS Radio (890 AM), which ABC had wholly owned since 1959 when the network bought the 50% interest it did not already hold in the station from Sears, Roebuck and Company. Ironically, ABC merged WLS with WENR, its shared-time partner, in 1954.
WLS-TV had claimed to be "Chicago's first television station" in its sign-ons during the 1980s (implying a connection with the original WBKB on channel 4), but admitted to its true roots with WENR with its 30th anniversary in 1978.
On January 17, 1984, WLS-TV launched Tele1st, an ABC-owned overnight subscription television service that carried a mix of films and lifestyle programs for four hours per night six days a week after the station's sign-off at 2:00 a.m.; the service was similar in format to competitor ONTV (which was carried locally on WSNS-TV, channel 44) and other over-the-air pay services that existed during the early and mid-1980s. Tele1st was created with the concept of allowing users to record programming for later viewing; therefore, its decoder boxes were designed to unencrypt the signal only with the aid of a VCR. Scrambling codes that were sent to the box and relayed to the VCR were changed on a monthly basis, requiring subscribers to record additional footage airing immediately before and after that night's schedule to retrieve codes to play back the recorded programs properly; this resulted in any recordings being viewable only during that calendar month. Tele1st was deemed a failure, attributing only 4,000 subscribers at its peak, and ceased operations on June 30, 1984.
The station's digital channel is multiplexed:
|Channel||Video||Aspect||PSIP Short Name||Programming|
|7.1||720p||16:9||WLS-DT||Main WLS-TV programming / ABC|
|7.2||LivWell||Live Well Network|
Prior to February 24, 2011, WLS-DT3 aired ABC 7 News Now with weather programming from The Local AccuWeather Channel. The ABC O&Os discontinued their Local AccuWeather channels in February 2011, replacing its programming with a letterboxed standard-definition simulcast of their Live Well subchannels; however, the partnership between ABC and AccuWeather continues to this day as the branding for the stations' weather reports.
WLS-TV shut down its analog signal, over VHF channel 7, on June 12, 2009, the official date in which full-power television stations in the United States transitioned from analog to digital broadcasts under federal mandate. The station's digital signal relocated from its pre-transition UHF channel 52, which was among the high band UHF channels (52-69) that were removed from broadcasting use as a result of the transition, to its analog-era VHF channel 7 for post-transition operations.
WLS operated its digital signal at low power (4.75 kW) to protect the digital signal of WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan (which also broadcasts on channel 7, but at a much higher radiated power). As a result, many viewers were not able to receive the station. The FCC sent extra personnel to Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City to deal with difficulties in those cities. WLS had received 1,735 calls just by the end of the day on June 12 (WBBM only received 600), and an estimated 5,000 calls in total by June 16.
WLS-TV was just one station which needed to increase its signal strength or move its frequency to solve its problems, but a power increase required making sure no other stations were affected. WLS received a two-week experimental permit for a power increase late in June. WLS had also applied for a permit to construct a low-power fill-in digital translator station on UHF channel 32 (the former analog frequency of WFLD), but abandoned that plan (the channel 32 RF frequency has since been claimed by WMEU-CD). Eventually the FCC granted it a permit to transmit on a second frequency, UHF channel 44, formerly occupied by WSNS-TV; WLS announced the availability of that frequency on October 31, 2009.
Throughout construction of the new maximized transmitting facilities at the Willis Tower, WLS operated both channels 7 and 44 from its auxiliary facilities at the John Hancock Center under an STA. WLS operated channel 7 as a fill-in translator with a power of 7 kW, and operating their full power operations on channel 44 with a power of 1 MW. Through the use of PSIP technology, both operating frequencies were re-mapped and displayed as virtual channel 7, which would cause some digital tuners to have two versions of virtual channels 7.1, 7.2 and 7.3, while tuning sequentially. In October 2012, WLS-TV completed construction from the Willis Tower and its operating channel 44 at the 1 million watt power level. The station continued its dual-frequency operations until 12:03 p.m. on March 18, 2013 when WLS-TV formally ceased operations on VHF channel 7, leaving UHF channel 44 as its permanent allotment. Since WLS-TV officially moved its full-power operations to channel 44, it is the only ABC-owned station to vacate its former analog allotment for its digital operations and the second ABC O&O to operate its full-power operations on the UHF band, after Fresno sister station KFSN-TV.
WLS-TV airs the entire ABC network schedule, however it currently airs the Litton's Weekend Adventure educational programming block and the network's political/news discussion program This Week one hour later than most ABC stations due to its weekend morning newscasts. Syndicated programs broadcast on WLS-TV (as of June 2016) include Live! with Kelly (Produced by sister station WABC), Inside Edition, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune (which is hosted by Chicago native Pat Sajak).
- From that program's debut in January 2003, WLS-TV aired Jimmy Kimmel Live! on a one-hour delay at 12:02 a.m. as the station aired reruns of The Oprah Winfrey Show at 11:02 p.m. after Nightline (this practice ended after Oprah – by then in reruns, as the daytime talk show aired its last episode that May – discontinued its syndication run on September 9, 2011; Jimmy Kimmel was subsequently moved to 11:02 p.m. three days later on September 12).
- For many years, WLS-TV was the only ABC owned-and-operated station that did not carry Live! with Kelly in its various incarnations. Live's traditional 9:00 a.m. timeslot was occupied on Channel 7 by Oprah prior to the former program's national debut in September 1986 until September 2011, and later by Windy City Live from September 2011 to September 2013; the program – which is produced by New York City sister station WABC-TV – had, however, occasionally aired in an overnight timeslot on WLS during periods when no other local station carried the program in a daytime slot. On September 2, 2013, Live with Kelly and Michael moved to WLS-TV (from WGN-TV), with Windy City Live being bumped to 11:00 a.m. as a result.
- WLS-TV remains the only ABC O&O that does not to air the syndicated version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (which, like Live!, is distributed by corporate sister Disney-ABC Domestic Television); that program aired for most of its run on WGN-TV, before being picked up by WPWR-TV (channel 50) in 2013 and later also by WCIU-TV (channel 26) in 2014.
Other WLS-TV produced programs
- 190 North - a local lifestyle program (titled after the station's studio address at 190 North State Street in the Loop) hosted by Janet Davies; the show began broadcasting in high-definition on May 6, 2007. The show ran on Sundays at 11:00 p.m., with a rebroadcast on Saturday nights from 1998 to 2013. It returned later in 2013 in a retooled format, only airing a few times a year.
- Let's Dish – a food-based travel program produced by WLS-TV for the Live Well Network, and shown locally on digital channel 7.2.
- Windy City Live - a local morning talk show hosted by Ryan Chiaverini and Valerie Warner that premiered on May 26, 2011, replacing The Oprah Winfrey Show. Initially airing weekdays at 9:00 a.m., the live telecast moved to 11:00 a.m. on September 2, 2013. currently, the telecast moved to 1:00 p.m. on June 27, 2016. Reruns air weekdays at 12:00 p.m. (on digital subhannel 7.2) and weeknights at 12:07 a.m. (after ABC's Nightline).
Former WLS-TV produced programs
- The Chicago Huddle - a local sports program about the Chicago Bears hosted by Ryan Chiaverini. The program aired Sundays 10:30 a.m. during the NFL season until during the 2009-10 Bears season.
- Chicagoing - a local public affairs program hosted by Bill Campbell. Aired on Sunday mornings at 11:30 a.m., the program ran its final broadcast on December 26, 2010.
Former syndicated programming produced in Chicago
- At the Movies - nationally syndicated film review program, produced at WLS-TV's studios, and syndicated by Disney-ABC Domestic Television. It aired Saturdays 10:35 p.m. with reruns Sundays 10:30 a.m. The program aired its final original broadcast on August 14, 2010.
- The Oprah Winfrey Show - formerly the local program A.M. Chicago, it retained the name about one year after Oprah Winfrey became host. The program was originally created by WLS-TV, but was later produced by Harpo Productions and CBS Television Distribution at Oprah's Harpo Studios. It aired weekdays at 9:00 a.m., in both its local and syndicated incarnations. The program ended with its final original broadcast airing on May 25, 2011. Reruns continued weeknights at 11:02 p.m. until September 9, 2011.
WLS-TV serves as the local over-the-air broadcaster of Monday Night Football games involving the Chicago Bears, airing simulcasts of the team's ESPN-televised games (WLS-TV's corporate parent, the The Walt Disney Company, holds 80% majority ownership stake in ESPN, and the ABC Owned Television Stations have right of first refusal for simulcasts of ESPN's NFL telecasts within a team's home market). Because of this, atypical for a network-owned station outside of breaking news and severe weather coverage necessitating such situations, the station has had to reschedule ABC network programs pre-empted by the telecasts. The preseason and MNF telecasts mark the only NFL games to have aired on WLS-TV since ABC lost the rights to NFL games in 2006; during the regular season, Bears games are rotated between WBBM-TV (through the NFL on CBS), WMAQ-TV (through NBC Sunday Night Football) and especially WFLD (through the NFL on Fox and select telecasts via the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football). Since 2010, however, it has deferred the right of first refusal due to the popularity and live voting requirements of ABC's Dancing with the Stars, with WCIU-TV carrying the MNF games when the former program's fall season is ongoing (an exception being WLS' carriage of an MNF Bears game against the Dallas Cowboys on December 9, 2013, when the team honored former head coach Mike Ditka).
On December 12, 2014, WLS-TV signed a new five-year broadcast agreement with the Chicago Cubs, in which WLS will televise 25 of the Major League Baseball team's games per year, starting with the 2015 season. The arrangement partially replaces one with WGN-TV (which has broadcast Cubs games since its inception in April 1948), which voluntarily pulled out of its existing broadcast deal with the team for the 2015 season and subsequently agreed to carry a reduced slate of 45 games (the remainder of the Cubs' over-the-air telecasts not carried by either WLS-TV or WGN-TV are carried by MyNetworkTV owned-and-operated station WPWR-TV (channel 50), which airs those produced by WGN). As ABC has a limited sports programming schedule during the Major League Baseball season prior to September (when the MLB regular season and college football season overlap), the station mainly carries the team's weekend daytime games in order to limit pre-emptions of the network's prime time programming.
WLS-TV presently broadcasts 36 hours of locally produced newscasts each week (with five hours on weekdays and five and a half hours each on Saturdays and Sundays). In addition, it also presently produces an additional five hours of newscasts each week for WCIU-TV (consisting of one hour exclusively on weekdays). Combining the newscasts airing on the station's main channel and those it produces for WCIU through its news share agreement with that station, WLS-TV produces a total of 41 hours of newscasts each week.
In 1969, WLS-TV adopted the Eyewitness News format that the other ABC owned-and-operated stations began implementing in the late 1960s, after the news format was popularized when it originated at New York City flagship WABC-TV. Beginning in 1968, the station's main evening newscasts were co-anchored by Fahey Flynn, a bowtie-wearing broadcaster who had spent the previous 15 years at WBBM-TV; and Joel Daly, who was hired away by WLS from WJW-TV in Cleveland in 1967. The duo served as the anchors of the station's 6:00 and 10:00 p.m. newscasts until Flynn's death in August 1983. In 1970, the two were joined by John Drury, who helmed the 5:00 p.m. newscast. By 1973, WLS' Eyewitness News broadcasts surpassed NBC-owned WMAQ-TV (channel 5)'s newscasts to become Chicago's top-rated news operation, a lead it held until WBBM-TV surpassed channel 7 for the top spot in 1979. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, it waged a spirited battle for second place in the Chicago news ratings between its two main competitors.
By 1983, a disastrous anchor change had dropped channel 7 into third place. This prompted two major changes to the station's management; ABC brought in Dennis Swanson from WLS-TV's Los Angeles sister station KABC-TV to serve as the station's new general manager. Swanson, in turn, hired Bill Applegate as the station's news director. In addition, ABC commissioned Frank Gari to compose an updated version of the Cool Hand Luke "Tar Sequence" theme widely associated with the Eyewitness News format. The result was News Series 2000, a theme package that was quickly picked up by the other ABC O&Os.
Swanson was instrumental in hiring Oprah Winfrey to host its then low-rated morning talk show, AM Chicago, in 1983. Within a year, the program had shot to first place in the ratings. AM Chicago entered into national syndication in 1986 and was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. Channel 7 aired it, along with most of ABC's other owned-and-operated stations, until September 2011. Swanson also re-hired lead anchor John Drury, who had left for WGN-TV in 1979; and Floyd Kalber, who had led WMAQ-TV to the top of the ratings in the 1960s. Drury and Mary Ann Childers were a popular anchor team at WLS-TV during the 1980s and 1990s, accompanied by weather anchor Steve Deshler and sports anchor Tim Weigel. In March 1986, channel 7 passed WBBM-TV as the highest-rated news station in Chicago. It has held the lead ever since, aside from a brief period when WBBM-TV managed to forge a tie for first in the late 1980s.
In 1992, the station replaced the News Series 2000 package (as the other ABC O&Os did over the following year, due partly to increased royalties for use of the Cool Hand Luke theme and its variants by the original theme's composer, Lalo Schifrin) with a new news music package, also produced by Gari, called News Series 2000 Plus (since renamed Stimulus), which has remained in use by WLS ever since and was updated in 2013. In 1996, WLS-TV dropped the Eyewitness News brand after 26 years, in favor of the network-centric ABC 7 News; the move was part of a standard branding effort imposed by ABC across its owned-and-operated stations which saw the incorporation of the ABC name into their local brands (most of the other ABC O&Os retained their existing news branding, as sister stations such as WABC-TV and WPVI-TV in Philadelphia retained their Eyewitness News or Action News identities).
WLS-TV officially debuted a new street-side studio at its North State Street facility on April 10, 2006, during the station's morning newscast, although the station had begun broadcasting its newscasts from that studio two days earlier on April 8. On the weekend of April 29–30, 2006, WLS-TV upgraded its news helicopter with a high definition camera, rebranding it as "Chopper 7 HD." On January 6, 2007, WLS-TV became the first Chicago television station to broadcast its all of its local programming – including newscasts – in high definition, although most remote field footage remained in 16:9 widescreen standard definition at the time. Since then, WLS-TV upgraded most of its field footage to HD, although some field reports remain in widescreen SD.
On December 23, 2007, a Mazda minivan drove through a reinforced studio window at the State Street Studio two minutes into the 10:00 p.m. newscast, startling anchor Ravi Baichwal on air and creating a 20° draft as the glass shattered upon the car's impact; no one was injured in the crash. Evanston resident Gerald Richardson was subsequently charged with felony damage to property for the incident. On November 11, 2012, WLS-TV expanded its Sunday 8:00 a.m. newscast from 1½ to two hours, leading into ABC's This Week. The 8:00 a.m. portion of the Saturday morning newscast was expanded to two hours from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. on August 24, 2013. Nearly a week later on August 30, WLS-TV discontinued its hour-long weekday 11:00 a.m. newscast (which originated in 1992 as a half-hour program at 11:30, before it expanded into an earlier, one-hour broadcast on October 6, 2003 following the cancellation of Port Charles) after 21 years, and replaced it on September 2 with Windy City Live, whose original 9:00 a.m. slot became occupied by Live! with Kelly and Michael when it moved to WLS from WGN-TV on that date (as such, it became the first – and currently, the only – ABC owned-and-operated station without a midday newscast). With the move and the midday newscast's cancellation, news and weather cut-ins were incorporated into Windy City Live.
On October 26, 2013, WLS-TV reintroduced the Eyewitness News brand (as ABC 7 Eyewitness News), as part of an overall rebranding of its newscasts that included new graphics and a modernized update to the Stimulus theme. In an interview with media columnist Robert Feder, WLS-TV president/general manager John Idler cited the reasoning behind the restoration of the Eyewitness News brand, was that it "[still] resonated strongly with [viewers in] the Chicago market," despite being dropped by the station 17 years earlier. On November 2, 2013, WLS expanded the early block of its weekend morning newscasts, with the extension of its hour-long 6:00 a.m. newscast on Saturdays and Sundays to two hours at 5:00 a.m.
On December 14, 2014, WLS-TV entered into a news share agreement with independent station WCIU-TV (channel 26) to produce a weeknight-only 7:00 p.m. newscast titled ABC 7 Eyewitness News at 7:00 on The U; the program debuted on January 12, 2015, and is the fifth newscast produced by ABC O&O for a separately owned station in the station's home market (along with existing programs produced by sister stations in Raleigh, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles for WLFL, WPHL-TV, KOFY-TV and KDOC-TV in the respective markets, and a since-cancelled newscast produced by KFSN-TV for KAIL in Fresno).
On June 27, 2016, WLS-TV revived its 11:00 a.m. newscasts for the first time since 2013, becoming the fourth television station in Chicago to so; which completes against with WMAQ-TV (who reviving its midday newscasts in September 2011 and moved to the time period in September 2014), WBBM-TV (who began airing a half-hour 11:00 a.m. newscasts in early 2000s), and WGN-TV (who began its midday newscasts in 1984; followed by some expansions in September 2008 and October 2009). As a result of some changes at the station, they moved Windy City Live to 1:00 p.m. following the cancellation of FABLife; which is shifted to overnight slot.
According to the Nielsen local news ratings for the February 2011 sweeps period, WLS-TV remained in first place overall, with the 10 p.m. newscast getting a 9.7 rating share, down a tenth of a point from a 9.8 during the same time the previous year. The station remained in second place for its prime-time lead-in.
Notable current on-air staff
- Ravi Baichwal – anchor and reporter
- Kathy Brock – anchor
- Terrell Brown – anchor
- Cheryl Burton – anchor
- Alan Krashesky – anchor
- Linda Yu – anchor
- Jerry Taft (AMS Seal of Approval) – chief meteorologist
- Mark Giangreco – sports director
- Jim Rose – sports anchor
- Chuck Goudie – chief investigative reporter
Notable former on-air staff
- Mike Adamle
- Diane Allen
- Jim Avila (now at ABC News)
- Roberta Baskin
- Diann Burns
- Jann Carl
- Mary Ann Childers
- Lauren Cohn
- John Coleman
- Joel Daly (retired)
- Alex Dreier†
- John Drury†
- Tom Duggan†
- Roger Ebert†
- Steve Edwards (now at KTTV)
- Fahey Flynn†
- Bill Frink†
- Judie Garcia
- Rob Johnson (now at WBBM-TV)
- Jack Jones†
- Floyd Kalber†
- Ron Magers (retired)
- Terry Murphy
- Kent Ninomiya
- Sylvia Perez
- Kim Peterson
- Dan Ponce
- Frank Reynolds†
- Charlie Rose (now at CBS News and host of Charlie Rose)
- Jim Rosenfield (now at WCAU)
- Warner Saunders (retired)
- Mark Schanowski
- Rafer Weigel
- Tim Weigel†
- Oprah Winfrey
- Rafer Weigel
- Robb Weller
- Indicates deceased