‘Bold Ideas for 100, Please, Alex’

When Dennis Bianchi, the Fox GM in Philadelphia, asked his team for some ideas, he got a bit more than he bargained for.

Richard Curtis

When Philadelphia-area teacher Richard Curtis won a contest in 2016 to try out as Kelly Ripa’s co-host on her ABC morning show, not everyone in the City of Brotherly Love was rooting for him. “We hope he doesn’t get this show,” WTXF Fox29 News Director Jim Driscoll and his colleagues agreed. They didn’t want a newly minted local celebrity — especially one as talented as Curtis — competing against them in the 9 AM hour of their Good Day Philadelphia.

So when Ryan Seacrest got the seat next to Ripa instead, Fox brass in New York hit speed-dial to the Philadelphia station, and Driscoll and GM Dennis Bianchi pounced. Curtis, who’s still a technology education teacher in Souderton, Pennsylvania, started contributing regularly to the morning show over his summer break last year, even filling in for host Mike Jerrick on the 9 AM hour from time to time. Senior EP Tom Louden wondered: “Could we build a show around this guy?”

Then one foggy Christmas Eve…okay, actually one day in February, Bianchi challenged his team to come up with some bold new local programming ideas to present to their Fox bosses in New York. Louden had one that Bianchi loved: a game show that pits teachers against students, featuring Curtis as host. The ClassH-Room was born.

Well, the show wasn’t really born until now: it premiered on October 1 and airs as a Monday through Friday strip at noon. Bianchi describes the long gestation period as much tougher than he expected — “incredibly hard.” “I’m grateful we didn’t know what we didn’t know back in March,” he adds. “We would have been terrified.”

But the result is impressive: a well-produced, entertaining game show that features students, teachers, and a hometown audience from a different area school every day. There’s a zippy theme song (lyrics by Creative Services Director Alissa Frick, who just got inspired to write them); a slick opening animation; buzzers imported all the way from Chicago; an inviting set with colors inspired by school bus yellow and chalkboard green; and obsessive attention to detail, including real school desks and handwritten name tags that use the students’ first names but call the teachers “Mr.” and “Ms.”

Curtis still teaches five days a week but shows up every Saturday to tape six episodes of The ClassH-Room in one of the news studios. In addition to propelling the proceedings like a game-show veteran, he draws on his day job to get the best out of his constantly changing “cast of characters.” The segments have names like Pop Quiz, Spell Check, Picture Day, Field Trip, and Final Exam. My favorite (and I got the sense Bianchi’s also) is Detention, which cuts both ways: the students can also send the teachers to sit out for a spell. The ominously lit detention area has a window for mindless staring and a clock with rapidly spinning hands — an ironic comment on the hands of a real classroom clock that never seem to move.

How does any of this help the newsroom though? The most obvious benefit is increased brand awareness and engagement with the station. “All the benefits of doing a show like this are local,” says Bianchi. He describes it as an outreach campaign built school by school across all 18 counties in the market, amplified by each set of participants and parents and friends on social media. “Every Saturday, six more communities are coming in here that might never have had a relationship with us.” There’s aggressive cross-promotion with Good Day as well.

Less tangible, but nevertheless palpable in talking with Bianchi and Driscoll, is the excitement of building something new that involves the whole station. The show grew out of the news department and still reports to Senior EP Louden. PJ Williamson directs Good Day Philadelphia four days a week and The ClassH-Room tapings on Saturday. The same control room crews that do the early and late news on Saturday split the six episodes. Says News Director Driscoll, “We could easily add more newscasts. To be challenged to do different things is energizing.”

Of course, enthusiasm alone won’t determine whether the experiment is deemed a success. Bianchi says early ratings are encouraging but suggests we check back in three months or so. Is this the seed of a new Fox Stations franchise? “That’s for other stations to decide,” says Bianchi. “What we care about is taping six great shows every Saturday.”

What are your bold new programming experiments? Email us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu. We’ll check them out.

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