WCVB

Jim in Massachusetts recently shared some details on the history of what the New York Times called the best television station in the country. Find out why...

WCVB-TV/Channel 5 remains Boston's preeminent television station. It is a station with a unqiue and rich history.

WCVB-TV signed on the air on March 19, 1972, after Boston Broadcasters, Incorporated, successfully petitioned the FCC for the license of rival WHDH-TV/Channel 5. This original Channel 5 was owned by the Boston Traveller Corporation, publisher of a daily newspaper and owner of two radio stations (WHDH-AM/FM). WHDH-TV signed on the air as Boston's CBS affiliate in 1957, but for various reasons the station never had more than a six-month license at any one time. (By comparison, most television licenses are for three-year intervals.)

The 15-year "WHDH Case" is a complex series of court decisions, challenges, appeals and behind-the-scenes dealings. An excellent book on the subject is "The One-Hundred Million Dollar Lunch." (It should be available through a public library.) The WHDH case was the first time a United States broadcaster was stripped of its television license by the government.

Boston was also the setting the second time this happened. In 1982, RKO General's WNAC-TV/Channel 7, Boston's CBS affiliate, was also forced to permanently leave the air. A competing applicant, New England Television Corporation, subsequently took over the channel 7 allocation as WNEV-TV. (The new Channel 7 retained the CBS affiliation of its predecessor until the Westinghouse/CBS deal in 1995.)

Getting back to WCVB-TV, the main promise BBI made to the FCC was a major commitment to local programming. From 1972 through the late-1980s, WCVB produced a huge amount of local programming... numerous specials and documentaries, a morning talk/variety program, a weekly courtroom show, two weekly bowling shows, a nightly magazine program, weekly minority programs, et cetera. "The New York Times" published a profile of WCVB-TV in the early 1980s and called it the country's best local television station.

BBI sold WCVB to Metromedia circa 1982. All of Metromedia's television stations - except for WCVB - were then sold to Rupert Murdoch (of Fox fame) sometime in the late 1980s. Channel 5 has held out for purchase by the Hearst Corporation. Hearst still owns it today.

The magazine show you saw on the station's web site is "Chronicle." It has been on Channel 5 at 7:30 P.M. weeknights since 1982. For eight years, it competed head-to-head with WBZ-TV's "Evening Magazine." However, much to Channel 5's credit, "Chronicle" has continued on the air for 17 years now; "Evening" went 13 years on Channel 4. "Chronicle" is different from "Evening Magazine" in that it features a wide range of subjects... from issues facing Boston's Hispanic community to the best places to fly a kite. The program's format covers a single topic for the entire half-hour, while "Evening" usually does three separate unrelated stories. "Chronicle" is up against strong competition at 7:30 ("Jeopardy!," "Entertainment Tonight," "Seinfeld," "Friends"); but it is usually a strong #2 in the time period.

Like the other local stations, WCVB is something of a shadow of its former self. All stations scaled back greatly on local programming in the late-1980s and early '90s. Yet, while the other stations have virtually no non-news local programming on the air today, WCVB still produces a decent amount. There is, of course, the jewel in the Channel 5 crown, "Chronicle." Plus, the station televises three Boston Pops/Symphony Orchestra concerts a year. It does two or three telethons each year for charities. It telecasts live special events such as the air show. It produces station-wide community service campaigns (e.g., The Healthbeat Project and A World of Difference). Channel 5 also airs a popular Sunday morning discussion program called "Five on 5" and a weekly inner-city magazine program ("Citybeat").

Channel 4 and Channel 7, on the other hand, only run syndicated shows, carry their respective network feeds and produce local news. They do little, if any, non-news local programming.

Despite having the third-place network (ABC), WCVB-TV is still the market's foremost television ststaion. It has been #1 in local news for many years in a row now. WBZ-TV, while having the top-rated television network (CBS), is now the third-place station in town. Channel 7 (the NBC affiliate) is somewhere in the middle.

You mentioned seeing a 1984 WCVB-TV promo. Yes, most of the people working at the station back then are still there today. Relative to other local stations, Channel 5 is a great place to be. No one wants to leave! People tend to stay there until retirement.


Drop a line with any comments to <karimzad@stanfordalumni.org>. I enjoy reading them, but due to the volume, I can't promise a timely response.