WCVB Boston in Fine Hands
Former Hollywood hopeful still making pictures
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/9/2008 7:00:00 PM
The election season surely brought back memories for WCVB Boston President/General Manager Bill Fine. It was 32 years ago that Fine, then a college student, spent two weeks in New York covering the 1976 Democratic National Convention and chasing nominee Jimmy Carter around Gotham.
His persistence paid off, as a key Carter operative whisked the young radio reporter into a limousine and schooled him on how presidential politics really worked. “It was my first experience with getting spun,” says Fine with a laugh.
Fine picked up lessons that summer that have served him well across his three-plus decades in broadcasting. While he shifted to television after college, his passion for storytelling and news reporting is unwavering. It's certainly an iffy time for broadcasting, but Fine's faith in TV is steadfast as ever. “There's still no more influential medium known to mankind,” he says from WCVB headquarters in Needham, Mass., about a mile from his childhood home. “The perfect storm of economic issues has surfaced, but the fundamental strengths of this business are the same.”
Broadcasting's gain has been filmmaking's loss. Fine was smitten with making movies as a kid, using an uncle's 16 mm camera to create short films. “It was my first connection to media,” he says. “It's absolutely when I got the bug.”
A fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Fine pursued his passion at Boston University's respected film school. It was there that a professor nudged him into a fledgling broadcast journalism program—which was how he found himself at the convention. Fine and his fellow students had written to their hometown radio stations, offering their services, and ended up providing coverage for 40-50 stations.
When Fine approached Carter press secretary Jody Powell one Sunday morning in Manhattan to ask a particularly sharp question, Powell sized up his young adversary and brought him into the limo for his lesson. “He said, 'Son, turn that recorder off, so you and I can really talk,'” Fine says. Toward the end of their ride, Powell instructed the budding reporter to turn the tape recorder back on, and offered a few soundbites.
Enthralled as he was with broadcasting, the movie bug persisted, and Fine prepared to drive cross-country before starting film school at the University of Southern California. Just before he was to leave, an old classmate who was employed at WPTZ Plattsburgh, N.Y., called to tell him a sports director job was open there. Fine sent his tape to the news director, and postponed his westward excursion to meet WPTZ management.
After a three-hour dinner, an impromptu Olympic quiz (the Winter Games were to be held in nearby Lake Placid, and Fine correctly answered a question about the biathlon) and an audition, the 21-year-old was offered the job. Film school was deferred, and remains so today.
Fine says his first 6 p.m. newscast at WPTZ was a home run. His 11 p.m. performance, with scores and highlights flying in from all sides, was a debacle. “I died on air,” he says. “I absolutely died.”
He sheepishly faced the general manager the next day, and was surprised when the boss congratulated him on a smashing debut—at least until his co-anchor whispered to him, “He never watches the 11 p.m.; he's always asleep.”
Fine spent two years on the air, and was perhaps best known for jumping into the frigid Saranac River in Red Sox regalia after losing a bet with a Yankees-rooting anchor following the teams' infamous one-game playoff in 1978. But tiring of working late hours—and showing a knack for reading a ratings book—Fine switched to sales at WPTZ. After a stint at Telerep, he started at WCVB in 1982.
Fine's introduction to Hearst-Argyle came when the broadcaster, then simply Hearst, bought the station from Metromedia in 1985. Several managers went to New York to meet the new owner, and Fine says he got good vibes right away from the likes of broadcasting General Manager John Conomikes and Hearst Chairman Frank Bennack. “They told us how much they valued the station and the people,” Fine says. “They made it very clear that they bought us because they thought the station would be good for the company, but what I realized was that the company was very good for the station.”
Fine shifted between WCVB and WBAL Baltimore over the next few decades, impressing Hearst brass with his business savvy and work ethic. “I think he's the hardest-working and smartest salesman who ever worked for me, and an absolutely irresistible personality,” says former WCVB general manager James Coppersmith. “Bill doesn't have to look behind him when he says 'Follow me.'”
Fine was named president/general manager of WBAL in 1998, and was the third in a line of GMs who grew the station from an also-ran to a market leader (he calls it a “three-act play,” with former GMs David Barrett and Phil Stolz managing the first two acts).
In 2005, Fine came back to WCVB as top dog. It's a powerhouse in the No. 7 DMA, routinely winning morning and evening news, and staying in the hunt in late news. Recently named vice chairman of the ABC affiliates board, Fine has quarterbacked an interactive TV test with Backchannelmedia, revamped WCVB's iconic magazine program Chronicle, and ramped up WCVB's investigative department, which prompted Home Depot to tighten its screening process for local contractors after a hard-hitting report.
His bosses give Fine high marks. “Bill's a great idea guy,” says Stolz, now Hearst-Argyle TV's senior VP. “He's very involved in the station in all regards, he can look at a market and see the opportunity, and he has a real passion for the business.”
Indeed, Fine is more engaged with news content than many general managers, tapping those old filmmaking skills while critiquing newscasts. “I'm not just looking at the story,” he says. “I'm looking at the way it's shot, the way it's edited, the way the story is told, because those determine whether those stories are interesting to the viewer.”
Fine, who has three children with his wife Gail, a coordinator at a non-profit, wouldn't trade his numerous Murrow and Peabody awards for movie baubles. “I've been in this business for 31 years, and there's nothing else I'd rather do,” he says. “It's not just my work and my career—it's something I really enjoy, and always have.”
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