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Roger Ebert Shouldn't Have to Beg for At the Movies Sponsors

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 7, 2011 8:00PM

2011_11_7_ebert_at_the_movies.jpg Roger Ebert had high hopes for his relaunch of At the Movies when it premiered on 192 public television stations in January. The legendary Chicago Sun-Times film critic put together a lineup of critics that included Associated Press film critic Christy Lemire and film critic and essayist Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, produced in the same studios where Ebert and the late Gene Siskel first got their starts in televised film criticism with Sneak Previews 35 years earlier, using the same "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" rating system popularizes (and trademarked) by Ebert. Ebert himself even pitched in with the occasional review, with anchorman Bill Kurtis lending his baritone in lieu of Ebert's lost speaking voice.

Public television made for a perfect forum for At the Movies, but Ebert wrote in a blog post this weekend he and wife Chaz have been underwriting the program out of their own pockets and, if they can't find sponsors to underwrite the program soon, At the Movies may not last another season. "Unless we find an angel," Ebert wrote, "our television program will go off the air at the end of its current season."

Ebert wrote:

When you hear on PBS that a show has been brought to you by various foundations, "and viewers like you," what does that mean? Essentially it means your pledges help finance the operating overhead of the stations. As producers of our show, we were expected to find foundations or other sources that would underwrite it. We believed so firmly in the show that Chaz and I agreed to back it personally while we started looking around. We have been talking to corporations, private foundations, and public charitable organizations, the sorts of places you might think of.

We could offer the underwriters something more than a feeling of benevolence. At the beginning and end of each program, they could have a 15 or 30-second spot. They'd be getting two spots on a national program. Our demographics include the most educated viewers in the "right" age groups and geographic areas.

Aside from a $25,000 charitable donation, the Eberts have been paying for the salaries of Lemire and Vishnevetsky, screen tests, titles, production and offices at Chicago's WTTW. The Eberts give the program to public television stations for free and distribute through American Public Television.

"I believe a program like this is needed on television," Ebert wrote. "On 'Ebert Presents,' a new Johnny Depp movie can get two thumbs down (or up, or a split decision) from two intelligent people who will tell you why they voted that way, and challenge one another. Movie coverage on TV is otherwise so intensely driven by marketing that some programs actually cover the marketing itself."