CBS Chicago bringing back streetside screen, studio space

After five years of sitting mostly unused, WBBM in Chicago is planning to reopen its streetside studio as a weather center and install a shiny new video screen on its exterior, reports Robert Feder

The windowed studio, located at the corner of Dearborn and Washington streets inside the city’s Loop business district, will become a weather center, while the station is investing in a new oversized video screen above the windows.

The studio first opened in 2008 as part of the Block 37 development, of which WBBM’s Broadcast Center was a key tenant. 

Prior to opening, renderings depicted a large, wraparound video screen on two sides of the building, though that was eventually scaled back to a single smaller section.

For several years the space on either side of the screen had an unfinished appearance thanks to exposed utility lines that would have presumably been covered by the planned larger screen installation. Eventually, blind windows matching those found on the rest of the building were installed over the unfinished sections, seemingly indicating the screen would never be expanded.

Over the years, portions of the screen stopped working and eventually it was switched off altogether. 

The space below, which featured specially-designed windows on two sides to help prevent glare and reflection, was home to the station’s primary news studio, though the set was not oriented to use the streetside views as a primary background. 

The station would eventually stop using the original home base and shifted the anchor desk to instead use a standup and franchise area with three flat-screen monitors as its primary look, but this still did not take advantage of the windows.

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At the time, the studio also featured a working weather center and chroma key wall, with the option to shoot weather and other reports with the bustling sidewalk beyond as a background. 

Eventually, WBBM moved its newscast production down the hall to Studio B when it installed a new set in 2017, which does not feature any windows.

Since then, the station essentially decommissioned Studio A in order to prepare to sublease it as retail or restaurant space, but was apparently unable to do so.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the station start using the space again to create alternate workspaces for staffers in order to help spread them out and encourage social distancing. 

In January 2022, WBBM, like multiple other CBS-owned stations would do, switched to using the “First Alert” branding for its weather and traffic and it plans to use the streetside space to create a showcase its weather offering.

The set in Studio B already includes a working weather center with multiple presentation areas with large video panels, though these are also often used for news segments. 

It’s not immediately clear how extensive the new weather center will be or how it will leverage the view.

Studio A comes in at about 3,500 square feet, so a weather center filling all or most of that space would result in a quite expansive installation.

Prior to moving out of the studio, a portion of the windows were nearly always covered to provide a shoot-off wall of sorts, so it’s possible the station could opt to only utilize a portion of the space for the weather center and wall off space for behind-the-scenes work areas or storage.

Plans also call for the station to show a feed of its 24-hour streaming service, CBS News Chicago (originally known as CBSN Chicago) on the screen, Feder noted. It hopes to go live in August 2022.

WBBM has long underperformed in Chicago TV ratings despite numerous format and anchor changes and experiments. Most recently it hired former WGN anchor Joe Donlon away from NewsNation, which is operated by the Nexstar, the same company that bought WGN and its parent Tribune Broadcasting. 

Windowed studios were once popular in Chicago, with both of the other two “big three” stations having them. Since then, however, NBC-owned WMAQ closed its streetside studio and only ABC-owned WLS still maintains one, though it does not use the view as a primary background.

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Fox-owned WFLD has a studio on the second floor of its building that provides views of Michigan Avenue. 

WBBM’s parent network operates a large upper-level windowed studio in Times Square for its morning newscast, “CBS Mornings,” but it notably not only does use the windows on air but keeps them mostly covered with large, CBS News-branded printed panels.

Of course, the most famous windowed studio in America is probably NBC’s Studio 1A, which is home to “Today” and “NBC Nightly News.”

“Today” makes more use of the windows than “Nightly.”

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