After 20 years of perky hosts and ping pong balls, the future of live Illinois Lottery drawings on WGN-Ch.9 is up in the air.
Lottery officials said Tuesday they are considering parting ways with WGN-TV, home to daily drawings since 1994, when the current one-year contract expires in June. Advances in lottery technology, an influx of new games and the move by Tribune Co. to pull the evening drawings off of national cable channel WGN America in February are playing into the decision.
"We’re in a period right now of just evaluating all these things," said Michael Jones, Illinois Lottery Superintendent. "The world has changed from 30 years ago and there are lots of ways now of doing drawings."
The Lottery pays WGN $1.2 million annually to air two live broadcasts each day — during the noon and 9 p.m. newscasts. The format has been the same for decades, with glamorous hosts drawing numbered ping pong balls out of glass machines for a variety of lottery games.
A hot commodity that sparked competitions between local TV stations for the exclusive broadcast rights in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the live drawings have perhaps lost some of their luster in the digital age. A number of games, such as “Hit or Miss,” exist entirely in cyberspace, with a random number generator housed in the Lottery’s Springfield office conducting four virtual drawings each day.
Lottery officials have been weighing whether the virtual technology might be just as effective for the big jackpot Lotto drawings. The decision by WGN America to replace the “News at Nine” with national programming and cut off the drawings to downstate viewers accelerated the process to consider alternatives, according to Jones.
WGN America is in the process of reinventing itself as a national cable channel, with heavily-promoted “Salem” debuting on Sunday, the first of several original scripted dramas rolling out this year.
The fees that WGN receives cover production costs, including the hosts, who are employed by WGN. The Lottery received a 40 percent reduction in fees for the last five months of the contract, corresponding with the loss of the downstate audience, according to officials.
The Lottery may look for steeper discounts going forward, or may just look in a different direction entirely, Jones said. Negotiations are ongoing; WGN officials said they are hoping to renew the longstanding agreement to air the lottery drawings.
“WGN-TV has been a proud partner with the Illinois Lottery for many years,” said a WGN spokeswoman. “We look forward to a continued partnership.”
This is not the first time Jones has contemplated pulling the drawings from WGN-TV. As Lottery Director from 1981 to 1985, he moved the games to WFLD-Ch.32 for a better deal.
The drawings bounced to WBBM-Ch.2 in 1992, and back to WGN on Jan. 1, 1994.
Jones was brought back as superintendent in 2011 after Northstar became the nation’s first private manager of a state lottery. Revenues are growing — they hit $2.84 billion last year with net proceeds of $794 million – but Northstar has failed meet its annual targets so far.
The Lottery spent $46 million on advertising in 2013, and Jones is hoping to lure more players – especially younger ones – to play the games.
Generating the winning lottery numbers through a computer and disseminating them online may be no less appealing, and substantially more cost-effective, in reaching the new target audience.
Still, longtime players may miss the ping pong balls, and particularly, Linda Kollmeyer, the sunshiny “Lottery Lady” who has hosted the drawings over two decades. Decked out in finery, punctuating the drawings with random, upbeat pearls of wisdom, she has developed a cult following.
Jones said that one of the virtual solutions he is contemplating would keep Kollmeyer in the game, even if the ping pong balls eventually disappear.
"In discussions with WGN, they’ve come up with some very imaginative things, including potentially having an avatar of Linda Kollmeyer, so that she lives forever," he said.