Chesterton Tribune

Fade to black: Northwest Indiana Uncovered nears the end of its 14 year run

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By KEVIN NEVERS

For 14 years it was must-see TV for Porter County’s elected officials, policy makers, newspaper reporters, and armchair wonks.

But after more than 700 episodes, Northwest Indiana Uncovered—formerly Porter County Uncovered—formerly Shooting Gallery—is heading for the Big Wrap in the sky, after Comcast Cable canceled the award-winning show, hosted throughout its lifetime by Ross Amundson, a past executive director of the Duneland Chamber of Commerce and now manager of government affairs for Indiana-American Water Company.

The last three episodes were shot in Comcast’s Merrillville studio on Friday. The first of the three debuted on Monday and will run through Sunday. The second will debut June 6 and run through June 12. The last episode will debut on June 13 and run through June 19. The show airs every day on Channel 4 at 12:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Amundson does believe that at some point Comcast will resurrect Uncovered in a new and “upgraded” form. At the moment, though, the region’s only cable provider—having acquired all of the franchises in Northwest Indiana and Chicagoland—has opted to “sunset” the show as part of an ongoing consolidation of “standards and formats,” he said. (Loyal viewers may well wonder, of course, whether Comcast, scurrying to serve Chicagoland, will have the afterthought to create public-affairs programming specifically for Northwest Indiana.)

Over the years Amundson has regularly attracted guests of considerable clout: U.S. Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Dan Coates, R-Ind.; U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-1st; Govs. Frank O’Bannon, Joe Kernan, and Mitch Daniels; State Rep. Ralph Ayres, R-Chesterton; and State Sen. Bill Alexa, D-Valparaiso.

And for three years running—1996-98—Uncovered won the award for the Best Public Affairs Series in the state from the Indiana Cable Telecommunications Association.

It had a good run and one which probably nobody would have predicted in 1990, when a Chesterton businessman started a local TV station and asked Amundson, as executive director of the Chamber, to host a public-affairs show along the lines of The Capital Gang and The McLaughlin Group. Amundson recruited a co-host—Deb Butterfield, president of the Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce—and a regular guest—Jim Hale, veteran reporter for the Chesterton Tribune—the show was dubbed Shooting Gallery, and it was taped “in a closet at the Indian Oak Resort,” Amundson recalled. “We got into some spirited discussions.”

After only a few months the local TV station went off the air but Lakeshore Cable quickly picked up the show and, re-named Porter County Uncovered, it was taped in a Valparaiso studio.

Amundson guesses that 150 or so people appeared on Uncovered, but the strength of the show was always its bullpen: two dozen core guests “ready to do a taping at the drop of a hat.” Hale was one of them until he left the Tribune in 1997—to be replaced in the rotation by his managing editor, David Canright—but Hale set a precedent. Over the years a series of reporters and editors from the region’s newspapers trooped into the studio to offer their two cents, or whatever they could spare (some of them appearing only once or twice and never again, after learning exactly why they had gone into print in the first place).

“It’s always been newspaper people as part of the show,” Amundson said. “They’ve always been an important part of the show. . . . People who know the issues. I wouldn’t send out agendas ahead of time. We’d just go for it and try to provide perspective on whatever the issues of the day were. And it worked. We had fun.”

In 1996 Amundson left the Chamber and took a position with the water company in Gary. Gradually the show’s center of gravity tilted slightly to the west, its panels grappled increasingly with Lake County issues, and Porter County Uncovered accordingly became Northwest Indiana Uncovered. “A combination of the consolidation of the cable industry in Northwest Indiana and the fact that I went to work for the water company shaped the dynamic of the show,” he said.

The water company—whoever owned it—was “always supportive of the show,” Amundson added. “That relationship has always worked out really well and it continues to do so.”

Amundson denied ever having a bad show (although no doubt a few guests recall stumbling and bumbling their way through a taping which seemed interminable).

Among his favorite shows, on the other hand, were the special election-night editions in which Ayres and Alexa provided running commentary. “We probably got more feedback on those shows than any other,” Amundson said. “Ralph and Bill were awfully good. For years they were an integral part of Uncovered.”

As a topic of discussion anything was fair game on the show, but Uncovered did have its recurring themes and leit motifs. Amundson—an outspoken proponent of the Gary/Chicago International Airport—counted three in particular. The growth of Porter County, for one, and its concomitant, economic development, for another: “Those issues have been constants,” he said. “Steel, taxes, the transportation corridor, our proximity to Chicago.”

And the environment: “We talked a lot about the environment,” Amundson noted. “We always have. Herb Read was a regular.”

Clearly Uncovered had a trickle-down effect on county and regional affairs, and issues first broached on the show had a way of popping up later on the front pages and op-ed pages of the newspapers. “A lot of policy makers have watched the show and been influenced by it,” Amundson said. “We had an opportunity to get ideas out in the public. I think we had a lot to do with shaping public opinion about the Regional Development Authority.”

But—for now at least—Uncovered is within days of fading to black. “It’s been fun and enjoyable. And meaningful too.”

 

Hale hails Uncovered

By JIM HALE

I had the privilege of joining Ross and company in the studio from the show’s earliest days, when it was called Porter County Uncovered. We originally taped the show in Chesterton, then moved to the old Porter County cable office in Valpo, before Comcast took over.

I was a reporter for the Chesterton Tribune, and as a newspaper guy with no other TV experience, I was never comfortable in front of the camera. But that didn’t stop me from saying exactly what I thought, a luxury that the politicians, PR folks, and, I’m sorry to say, some other journalists on the show didn’t really have.

I’m afraid I was a little outrageous sometimes, but somebody had to stand up for the workers against uncaring corporations and for everyday citizens against politicians who were often hand-in-glove with the Region’s business elite. My positions made some people uncomfortable. In fact an editor of the Vidette-Messenger, before the Hammond Times of Munster devoured it, once asked me if my red-and-black tie was made of shredded Soviet flags.

That wasn’t the only wardrobe moment. Once, when I was planning to play golf after a taping, my shirt and tie were visible above the table, but Ross made me stand up and display the short pants I was wearing.

I left the show in 1997, when I got married and moved to Pennsylvania, where my wife, Susan Russell, is a theater professor at Gettysburg College. After stints as night editor of the Gettysburg Times and education reporter at another paper in the area, I’ve spent the last five years as the staff writer in the communications office of Gettysburg College. I wouldn’t care to do PR in the for-profit sector, but I believe strongly and sincerely in liberal-arts education.

People here in Pennsylvania don’t know anything about Northwest Indiana. I tell them that it’s Chicago’s New Jersey, which is a comparison they can understand. But they’ll never understand what the Region means to me. I grew up in Gary and Portage as my parents endured decades at Bethlehem and Inland. I had the privilege of graduating from Valparaiso University, where I gained an excellent education and lifelong friends. And I spent 15 years helping the Chesterton Tribune show the other papers how community journalism is REALLY done. I will be a proud Region Rat until the day I die.

And here’s a parting shot. Especially when we get so little coverage in Chicago TV news, I think it’s a damn shame that Comcast is robbing the Region of public-affairs programming by canceling Northwest Indiana Uncovered.

 

Posted 6/2/2005