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'At the Movies,' onetime home to Siskel & Ebert, will fade to black this summer

March 25, 2010 | 12:23 pm

After a revolving door of hosts and much backstage drama, it's finally a wrap for "At the Movies."

The weekly syndicated program, which made celebrities out of its then-hosts, dueling movie reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, has aired on local TV stations since 1986. But on Thursday, Disney-ABC Domestic Television confirmed that it would cancel the show in August. Its current hosts are the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips and the New York Times' A.O. Scott.

"This was a very difficult decision, especially considering the program's rich history and iconic status within the entertainment industry, but from a business perspective it became clear this weekly, half-hour, broadcast syndication series was no longer sustainable," the company said in a statement.

The move comes at a time when local TV stations and syndication companies face heightened competition and financial pressure from cable outlets and the Internet. As many observers have pointed out, websites have made it possible for viewers these days to glean a wide diversity of opinions about the latest movie releases. But when Siskel -- who died in 1999 -- and Ebert premiered their original movie program, "Sneak Previews," on a Chicago PBS station in the 1970s, many newspapers did not have their own film critics. 

Ebert -- who was forced to rely on on-camera substitutes for "At the Movies" after cancer surgery in 2006 made it impossible for him to speak and who left the show entirely in 2008 -- sounded a philosophical note about its demise in a blog post Thursday.

"It isn't only 'At the Movies' that died Wednesday," he wrote. "It was a whole genre of television." He revealed that he and his wife Chaz are "deeply involved" in talks with companies for a new movie-reviewing show that will take advantage of social-media services as well as traditional TV.

"At the Movies" was a onetime syndicated hit, but recent years had not been kind to the show. Siskel and Ebert signed on with Disney after leaving a predecessor show (also called "At the Movies") that had been produced by Tribune Entertainment. Chicago columnist Richard Roeper eventually replaced Siskel. Then, in 2008, Disney decided to try to update the program by hiring two younger co-hosts, Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons. That move was harshly criticized by film fans, who dismissed Lyons in particular as a lightweight. The following year, as ratings drooped, Scott and Phillips were brought in to return the show to its roots. But it evidently was too late. 

Tributes from fellow critics are rolling in. On his Time blog, TV writer James Poniewozik observed that reality TV may have helped kill "At the Movies," adding: "It may be hard to remember now, but part of the appeal and novelty of Siskel and Ebert was the brash novelty of it -- two smart guys willing to cut to the chase" and publicly criticize films. "That was part of what made it special."

-- Scott Collins

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