Siskel & Ebert represents the first and most popular of the movie review series genre that emerged on television in the mid-1970s. The lively series focuses on the give and take interaction and opinions of its knowledgeable and often contentious co-hosts, Gene Siskel, film critic of the Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert, film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times. Syndicated to approximately 180 markets across the United States, as of this writing, the spirited pair reach a potential 95% of the country on a weekly basis.
Developed from am idea credited to producer Thea Flaum of PBS affiliate WTTW in Chicago, the original series, Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, was broadcast once a month to a local audience beginning in September 1975. Using brief clip of movies in current release, the rival critics debated the merits of the films making simple yes or no decisions for positive and negative review. On those not so rare occasions when the two disagreed, sparks might fly which delighted viewers. An additional element of interest featured Spot the Wonder Dog jumping on to a balcony seat and barking on cue to introduce the film designated "dog of the week."
After two seasons, the successful series was retitled Sneak Previews and appeared biweekly on the PBS network. By its fourth season, the show became a once-a-week feature on 180 to 190 outlets and achieved status as the highest rated weekly entertainment series in the history of public broadcasting. Based on their success, in 1980, WTTW made plans to remove the show from PBS and sell it commercially as a WTTW production. The two stars indicate they were offered a take-it-or-leave-it contract which they declined. They left the series in 1981 to launch At the Movies for commercial television under the banner of Tribune Entertainment, a syndication arm of the Chicago Tribune. Basically utilizing the same format as Sneak Previews, the new series made some minor adjustments including the replacement of the black and white Wonder Dog with Aroma the skunk which ultimately was removed to make room for commercials. At WTTW, Sneak Previews replaced Siskel and Ebert with New York based critics Jeffrey Lyons and Neal Gabler. In time, the PBS offering would settle on Lyons and Michael Medved as its hosts and the show remained on air through the 1995-1996 season.
Citing contractual problems with Tribune Entertainment, in 1986, Siskel and Ebert departed At the Movies for Buena Vista Television, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, and created a new series entitled Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. The order of the names was decided by the flip of a coin and the show title was eventually shortened to Siskel & Ebert. Ebert also suggested the Romanesque thumbs up-thumbs down rating system which has since become a distinctive Siskel-Ebert trademark. Their former show, At the Movies, acquired Rex Reed and Bill Harris as hosts, and added news of show business to the format. Harris left the series in 1988 end was replaced by Dixie Whatley, former co-host on Entertainment Tonight, and the series continued into 1990.
Of all the different series/co-hosts in this genre, the Siskel-Ebert partnership has remained the most celebrated. Offering responsible commentary in an unedited spontaneous fashion, in twenty years the two critics have reviewed more than 4,000 films and have compiled an impressive list of firsts and show milestones. In his defense of television film critics in the May/June, 1990 issue of Film Comment, Ebert, the only film critic to have won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, points out that Siskel & Ebert was the first national show to discuss the issue of film colorization, the benefits of letterbox video dubbing and the technology of laser disks. They have provided an outlet for the ongoing examination of minority and independent films, attacked the MPAA rating system as de facto censorship and protested product placement, i.e., incidental advertising, within films. And, in May 1989, extolling the virtues of black and white cinematography, they videotaped their show in monochrome--the first new syndicated program to do so in twenty-five years.
Siskel and Ebert's influence with audiences is also notable. Their thumbs up reviews are credited with tuning films such as My Dinner with Andre (1981), One False Move (1992) and Hoop Dreams (1994) into respectable box-office hits. Thumbs down reviews have had the opposite effect but many filmmakers feel that ultimately it is up to the public to choose what films they see and many directors/producers speak to the benefits that exposure on Siskel & Ebert can provide. Notwithstanding, there have been occasional disgruntled feelings. As reported in the Los Angeles Times (10 December 1995), screenwriter Richard LaGravanese used "Siskel" as the name for one of the "bad guys" in his film The Ref after a negative review of his previous work, The Fisher King.
Both Siskel and Ebert agree their animated dialogue is crucial to the show's success and more compelling than criticism from a solitary voice. They view their disagreements as those of two friends who have seen a movie and have a difference of opinion. But, they have had more intense moments as evidenced in a pre-Oscar special broadcast in 1993--when an angry Ebert took exception to Siskel's revelation of the significant plot twist that concludes the film The Crying Game.
Through the years, the television industry has recognized Siskel & Ebert with six national Emmy nominations and one local Emmy (1979). In 1984, the pair were among the first broadcasters initiated into the National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE) Hall of Fame. They also received NATPE's Iris Award for their achievement in nationally syndicated television. The Hollywood Radio and Television Society named them Men of the Year in 1993. As Richard Roeper wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times (15 October 1995) on the occasion of their twentieth anniversary, "Siskel & Ebert took serious film criticism and made it palatable to a mass audience--and in so doing, became celebrities themselves, as recognizable as most of the movie stars whose films they review."
Arlidge, Ron. "'At the Movies' Rates Higher than Improving 'Sneak.'" Chicago Tribune, 11 November 1982.
Anderson, John. "Why is 'Movies' So Successful? It's Simple." Chicago Tribune TV Week, 1-7 September 1985.
Bellafante, Ginia. "Pro Thumb Wrestling." Time (New York), 5 April 1993.
Ebert, Roger. "All Stars or, Is There a Cure for Criticism of Film Criticism." Film Comment (New York), May/June 1990.
Roeper, Richard. "Thumbs Up! 20 Years in the Balcony." Chicago Sun-Times, 15 October 1995.
Turan, Kenneth. "Rating TV's Movie Critics." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 18-24 March 1989.
Zoglin, Richard. "'It Stinks!' 'You're Crazy!'" Time (New York) 25 May 1987.