Toned down 'Today Show' hits Chicago

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Holt's family was represented by son Stefan, a morning anchor at NBC's WMAQ-Ch. 5, seen during the “Today” broadcast in local cutaways and afterward chatting in Millennium Park with Geist and Morales.  

And back in New York City, former WFLD-Ch. 32 anchor Tamron Hall was filling in for Morales at the “Today” newsdesk, calling her home of 10 years “one of the best cities in the country.” 

What else did the “Today” audience learn about Chicago?

Truth be told, not much that even viewers in Orlando — where Geist, Morales and Al Roker will be Thursday — haven't heard 100 times before: blues, flavored popcorn, The Second City, Cubs and Sox, “Sweet Home Chicago” and Sinatra singing about “my kind of town …”  

Local radio hosts Eric (Ferguson) and Kathy (Hart) fronted a tour-of-Chicago piece that had perky production values and the good sense to include a Chicago River architecture tour. 

Reporter Kevin Tibbles' piece on organizations battling against the violence afflicting Chicago's youth had more flash than depth, but it at least acknowledged there is more to the city than a things-to-do list for out-of-towners. 

Viewers at one point were promised a piece on Navy Pier but that, apparently, got squeezed out for time. Which is just fine: Better that the show spent the time it did with jellies, a stingray and a salamander from the Shedd Aquarium. 

Bringing on Cecily Strong, first of Oak Park, then of Second City, now of “Saturday Night Live,” meant a fresh new face. Geist even coaxed a nice moment out of her when she said that, at Second City, she never even dared to say that she wanted to be on “SNL.” “It seemed so silly” to imagine such a thing, said Strong, widely praised as a breakout star of her first season. 

Another featured local celebrity with ties to NBC was former “Apprentice” winner Bill Rancic. He is, at least, a newer addition to Chicago's list of usual suspects, not unlike The Bean. 

But the Italian restaurant he and wife Giuliana partner in, RPM Italian Restaurant, was mentioned twice, first by Rancic, then in a spotty piece on Chicago nightlife. For the record, RPM's one-star review last year from the Tribune's Phil Vettel said the place has “the look, the energy … and the inconsistent kitchen.”  

“Today's” were national cameras that Mayor Rahm Emanuel somehow did not manage to find, but his former Obama administration colleague Desiree Rogers, newly named chair of the Choose Chicago tourism effort, was a sort of stand-in, touting the virtues of the city and its desire to jump from 44 million to 50 million tourists annually. 

There were minor glitches: Morales, on air, said Chicago was the Second City for its population count, before quickly correcting herself. Geist said Evanston was “a couple of towns” up the lakefront, instead of the first one north of Chicago. 

But these weren't easy circumstances: The hosts and crew only had a few hours sleep, having flown in from Oklahoma late the night before, and they were broadcasting mostly from under a temporary tent, with laptops set up on picnic tables amid cut-up pieces of script. 

For all that, there were no evident signs of the “Today” turmoil that has been the topic of national media reports since former co-anchor Ann Curry was demoted in favor of Guthrie last year. Since then, longtime leader “Today's” overall ratings have slipped behind those of ABC's “Good Morning America.”

In Chicago, though, it's long been an uphill battle for “Today.” Even in its heyday, the NBC morning show trailed “GMA” due, largely, to ABC station WLS-Ch. 7 winning the local news battle and being home to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

“Today” came here — part of what was to have been a five-city national tour, before Oklahoma's tornadoes happened — to try to change the story about itself and boost local ratings. 

And the staff doesn't worry so much about presenting material that Chicagoans might have heard before because we are not the primary audience. “For the most part, you're thinking of the rest of the country,” Geist said in an interview afterward.  

Such a show ”is sort of presenting a postcard of what each city is,” Morales added, a fair description for the repetitive and not particularly probing nature of what gets discussed. 

While Wednesday's abbreviated broadcast was fine, as far as it went, those of us watching from Chicago can be forgiven for having our own, postcard-friendly response: “Wish you were (really) here.” | Twitter: @StevenKJohnson

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