SECRETS OF SKILLING
Like the wrapper on a can of creamed corn, TV personalities are the identifying label on the product being made inside a TV station. You used to identify WGN with certain colorful characters: Ray Rayner, Garfield Goose, and Bozo. Rayner died a few years ago, Garfield Goose is in museum storage, and Bozo was forced into retirement from computer-generated kids shows on the cartoon network.
This leaves the well-coifed newscasters to be the face of a local TV station. There is no question that the most valuable is Tom Skilling, who celebrates his 29th anniversary with WGN this week. When my colleagues and I used to ride in the WGN parade float with Bozo, we’d be invisible. Now, we’re still invisible; only it’s Tom Skilling everyone wants to smell and squeeze. Wherever I go, everyone wants to know about Tom Skilling. What’s he really like?
I’ll get to his dark dirty secrets in a moment, but first, let me say (and I would say this to Tom right before he’d go on the air just to needle him) : 'What difference does all this weather information really make?' Skilling will note that there’s a relationship between El Nino, Nixon’s sale of grain to Russia, and the anchovy harvest in Peru. (I’m not making that up.)
However, I just think about Jason Bourne driving cars off roofs, stabbing villains with pens, and saving the world from evil bureaucrats -- and your biggest concern is if Saturday turns out to be eight degrees cooler than predicted, and you forgot a sweater. So what?
We’ve all bought into it -- bold colors fly across the screen like you are watching some chase scene in a Disney animation -- it’s just Skilling’s graphics -- everything from barometric pressure in Kankakee, to the average windspeed of the Chinook winds in October, to the 100 year history of precipitation on a given day at Palwaukee Airport. The staff once counted 40 elements (graphics satellite loops) in his weathercast. It is without a doubt, the most comprehensive weather report in the country.
I have seen him do weather hundreds of times and I still don’t understand half of it; especially why he gives the weather in Alaska, which is a pogo stick hop from RUSSIA. However, it’s still entertaining, like when he once referred to a weather system as a “panhandle hooker.” Now that is art.
Part of the appeal, is Skilling’s passion. He is as friendly off screen, as he is on screen. But don’t think this is some PR snow job. Here are the dark secrets of Tom Skilling:
* Tom worked with a puppet in Milwaukee called “Albert the Alley Cat,” which was inflicted upon him by management. They had promised to phase him out, but it wasn’t a moment too soon for a young Tom Skilling.
“This was the day of weather gimmicks,” Skilling said. “People would knit [the puppet] outfits and while I was talking about dew points he would promote church bazaars and read the weather statistics.”
* Beneath the aw shucks Midwestern demeanor, he can be wickedly funny with his dark sense of humor.
* Despite his attention to detail, his office looks like Fred Sanford’s living room, with week-old tuna sandwiches, a giant pencil, and printouts of the dew point history for Minooka. He is a pack rat.
* Everyone at WGN knows that whenever Tom goes on his vacation, there is some kind of weather crisis: blizzard, thunderstorms, heatwave. I don’t have the records to prove it, but you can bet Tom Skilling does.
As local programming has become extinct, local newscasters have become more valuable to their managers. I am not sure if anyone cares about the accumulative snowfall for Februarys since the Bay of Pigs invasion, but one thing is clear -- he is the guy you want to invite into your living room for a cup of coffee -- and in this media saturated culture-- that’s worth a million.