Your Window To The World...

Every Saturday, I have a little tradition: while I do housework or whip something up in the kitchen, I watch our local PBS affiliate, WTTW. When they're not airing some sort of prestige programming during pledge drives (which seem like they're occurring all the time, year round), Saturdays on WTTW are dedicated to cooking programs, and I look forward to their line-up all week long. Granted, I watch plenty of Food Network and Cooking Channel, but I find that their programming has gotten away from actual educational content and moved toward cooking competitions and reality programming on the Food Network, and travel features on the Cooking Channel. If you want to see shows where you'll pick up actual helpful tips and techniques, the less glossy, more information dense programs of WTTW are where it's at.

There's Cook's Country and America's Test Kitchen, both from the team behind Cook's Illustrated, where their exceedingly geeky staff goes into more detail about the process of cooking and baking than you ever thought possible; Primal Grill, a ludicrously over-the-top ode to grilling, which I used to loathe, but have subsequently found to be full of helpful information now that we actually own a grill; and shows by low-key celebrity chefs like Lidia Bastianich, Hubert Keller, Jacques Pepin, and my favorite, Chicago's own Rick Bayless. I would way rather spend my Saturday with them than Bobby Flay, Rachel Ray, Paula Deen, and their ilk.

However, today I exchanged spending the afternoon in front of my television watching WTTW for spending the afternoon at WTTW itself, taking a tour of their studios and production facilities. Mom has been a member of WTTW for as long as I can remember, and it is through the gifts of people like her that I continue to enjoy their programming, (for my part, I can't afford to donate at this stage in my life) and their membership department contacted her recently to offer her and her family a behind the scenes tour as a thank-you for her support.

Since I'm a fan of WTTW, and I'm always on the lookout for interesting (and free) things to do around the city, Mom extended the invite to me and Justin. I think we were among the youngest people there, aside from a mother who had brought her two young daughters to see where Sesame Street comes from, and a bored-looking teenager shooting daggers from his eyes at the mother who had dragged him there. It doesn't exactly bode well for WTTW's membership base, I think, but it did prompt an unanticipated level of excitement about seeing the set for Chicago Tonight, a show I have watched approximately once in my life, when my dad was on it, and prompted all kinds of idiotic questions, such as, "Just what kind of bird is Big Bird supposed to be, anyway?"

A forest of lighting hanging above the Chicago Tonight set.
The crowd aside, it was an interesting afternoon. If we'd wanted to leave hammered, we could have played a drinking game focused on the guide's use of the phrase, "It's the magic of television!" but it was still fascinating to see some of the tricks used to bring television programs to the masses on a non-profit budget. Most of the sets were tiny, compared to how they appear on the screen, and they looked cheap and tacky without all the lighting effects. We got to see three different studios, one that was being set up for yet another pledge drive, the one where Chicago Tonight is filmed, and one that was set up for Roger Ebert Presents: At the Movies, which is actually a syndicated show that leases studio space from WTTW.

The nerve center of WTTW, where the magic of television happens.
Perhaps the best part of the tour was the broadcast room, where staff members sat in front of dozens of monitors showing the live feed of what is being output to viewers, and a timed delay of how it is showing up on their televisions at home. They watch all four local WTTW stations (the original, a channel with no kid's programming to appeal to older viewers, and a whole channel dedicated to cooking, DIY, gardening, and travel shows) to make sure there are no technical problems, and to resolve them when they occur. They also manage the computer programs that control the television lineup and retrieve the proper footage at the proper time. More than anything else, it gave a true sense of how the station really works.

I love a good behind-the-scenes tour. A similar tour of the Field Museum when I was in middle school had me convinced for most of my life that I wanted to work at a museum, and though I didn't experience any such epiphany about wanting to work in television, it was still really neat to see the inner workings behind our local PBS affiliate. Thanks, Mom!

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