Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Liam at https://othemts.wordpress.com/
- Opening Soon at a Theater Near You (1975–1977) – WTTW, Chicago
- Sneak Previews (1977–1982) – PBS
- At the Movies (1982–1986) – Syndication
- Siskel & Ebert & the Movies (1986–1999) – Syndication
In 1975, WTTW-TV (the local PBS outlet for Chicago) brought together two film critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert for a movie review show called Opening Soon at a Theater Near You. Siskel wrote film reviews for the Chicago Tribune starting in 1969 while Ebert began his career as a film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967. In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize. This was a time when there was a heated rivalry between the two Chicago newspapers, and members of the small field of film criticism, there was a professional rivalry between Siskel and Ebert as well, bordering on animosity.
The show started off roughly as each critic attempted to assert their personality and get one over on their opponent (not to mention that neither one had much experience in front of a camera). Over time they gradually eased up and started having more of a conversation about the movies. Working together proved to be more effective inspiring one another with insights. Siskel and Ebert started to become friends in real life as well. Despite all of this, some of the best TV drama came when they disagreed and argued about a movie, but always with respect for their opponent as an individual.
After two seasons on WTTW, the show was retooled as Sneak Previews and broadcast nationally on PBS. The pair left PBS in 1982 for a syndicated show produced by Tribune Entertainment called At the Movies. In 1986, after a contract dispute, they created another syndicated show called Siskel & Ebert & the Movies (later shortened to Siskel & Ebert) produced by Walt Disney television. All the shows shared some common characteristics, reviewing a handful of new releases in each episode, with special episodes focusing on the Oscars, Siskel & Ebert’s best movies of the year, and a deep focus on the work of an individual artists. The shows ended with a roundup of the movies discussed with Siskel & Ebert each giving a thumbs up or thumbs down for each movie. “Two thumbs up” became a coveted phrase for movie promoters to include in their advertisements.
It’s unfortunate that the whole thumbs up/thumbs down thing became such a cultural touchstone, because Siskel & Ebert offered a much deeper appraisal of movies than that shorthand could ever offer. I found a website called Siskel & Ebert Movie Reviews where full episodes of the show have been uploaded. Watching some shows reminds me how deep they would go into their discussion of the films as well as sharing extended clips of the movies. It seems a foreign concept today when everyone is so worried about “spoilers,” but I remember going to the movies back in the 1980s knowing a whole lot about what I was going to see thanks to Siskel & Ebert, and it helped me enjoy the movies more.
Siskel & Ebert essentially democratized film criticism. When the show started in the 1970s, it was a time when foreign films were getting screened regularly in the U.S. for the first time, and older American movies were getting rereleased. Siskel & Ebert loved “highbrow” art movies, and promoted them on their show but never in a snooty manner. Instead they made these films more accessible to wider audiences. In the 1980s, home video made even more movies more widely available and the always included home media releases in their shows as well. The duo could also find great entertainment in “lowbrow” Hollywood movies and weren’t afraid to say what they liked and why they were still great movies. Of course, they also didn’t hold back on bad movies, and covered them in features like “Dog of the Week” with Spot the Wonder Dog barking an introduction.
Gene Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999. A private man he did not share the extent of his illness outside his family so his sudden death took his partner Roger Ebert off guard. Ebert continued the show with rotating guest hosts for a time before partnering up with Richard Roeper from 2000 to 2008. Ebert was struck with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands in 2002 and in 2006 had his lower jaw surgically removed. Always contrary to Siskel, Ebert was open to sharing his health problems with the public, particularly in the intimate documentary movie Life Itself. Unable to speak, Ebert continued to review movies in print, publishing them on his website RogerEbert.com until his death in 2013.