local legends: special report
It was Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives from Boston, who often said, “All politics is local.” The legendary congressman would be happy to learn a version of that maxim is still alive and well at WCVB, the Boston TV station where, it seems, everybody has strong roots to their hometown.
There is no need to coach the staff on the correct pronunciation of Gloucester or Worcester. Most WCVB staffers grew up watching Channel 5 and have Boston—and its quirks—down cold.
Just a couple of weeks ago, over coffee at the station cafeteria called Five & Dine, consumer reporter and noon anchor Susan Wornick watched as colleagues entered for a snack. As they did, she rattled off their hometowns—nearly all from Boston or the surrounding area.
Star anchor Natalie Jacobson is a Boston native. So is chief meteorologist Dick Albert. Weekend anchor Kelley Tuthill hails from Hingham, where she once had a Boston Globe paper route. In fact, says Wornick, who was reared in nearby Natick, where she still lives, “most of us grew up here. It matters a lot to the viewers.”
In a market proud of its localism, there are fewer places with deeper roots than WCVB. “People define great TV stations, and, over the years, WCVB has been blessed with the best of Boston’s TV professionals,” says David J. Barrett, president and CEO of Hearst-Argyle, which owns the ABC affiliate.
Over WCVB’s 33-year history, the station has thrived on a two-pronged approach: heavy local programming and deep community involvement. “My mission is to institutionalize this station in the community,” says President/GM Paul La Camera.
WCVB’s repertoire of local production is almost unrivaled. Its 23-year-old nightly newsmagazine Chronicle is practically one of a kind. In addition to five weekday newscasts—all top-rated in Boston households in January—producers churn out local specials and public-affairs programs.
In 2004, WCVB aired 24 original specials ranging in topics from political issues to health to sports. All aired in valuable real estate between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. WCVB doesn’t like to brag about it, but it is a top preemptor of ABC programming.
The station’s news operation is first-rate. “There is incredible attention to detail, whether it is big events like the pope’s visit or elections or breaking news,” says former WCVB News Director Emily Rooney, now host and executive editor for Greater Boston, a WGBH local-affairs show.
WCVB has been lauded with a mountain of prestigious broadcasting prizes, including regional Emmys, Gabriel Awards, DuPont Awards and Edward R. Murrow honors, on display all over the station. In 2001, a live Fourth of July special, Pops Goes the Fourth, earned a National Prime Time Emmy nomination, the first for a station.
In the past, WCVB behaved like a mini broadcast network. In the 1980s, the station produced an ABC Afterschool Special, a prime time movie and a local sitcom. ABC’s Good Morning America was modeled on the station’s old morning show, Good Day! That’s changed some. “We’ve focused on what we do well: informational shows and documentaries,” says Liz Cheng, VP of programming.
As the local TV business has changed everywhere, so has WCVB. Consolidation forced a new bottom line, which is how WCVB, once owned by local businessmen, became one of 26 Hearst-Argyle affiliates. Some Bostonians say that has changed the station’s individuality. But anchor Jacobson won’t hear it.
“Stations have gone through this agonizing identity crisis,” she acknowledges. “Who are we? What are we?” But, she says, “through the passage of time, the changing definition of news and financial constraints, this station has kept its identity. It has always thought of itself as a big part of the community.”
Jacobson—or Nat, as she is known to viewers and co-workers—is WCVB’s most visible face. She arrived at the station in 1972 and climbed the ranks to the plum 11 p.m. anchor desk, where she reigned from 1978 to 2000. Her marriage to co-anchor Chet Curtis, and their divorce five years ago, prompted lots of headlines. (He went to work for New England Cable News.) Other large- market stations and networks have tried to steal her away, but Jacobson, who has a young-adult daughter in town, says she’s just too Boston to leave. (Other WCVB veterans include Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and ABC’s Dr. Tim Johnson, who still reports for WCVB on the side.)
The station has rewarded her loyalty with an enviable arrangement. Since 2000, Jacobson works an abbreviated day, co-anchoring the 5 p.m. news with Anthony Everett and a solo newscast at 6 p.m. The rare one-woman newscast is a testament to Jacobson’s worth. “Natalie has a long-standing reputation,” says Assistant News Director Neil Ungerleider. “This is not necessarily something you’d do with another anchor.” Viewers clearly approve: Jacobson’s 6 p.m. news dominates the market. In January, her WCVB newscast pulled in a 10.1 rating versus WHDH’s 7.3 rating and WBZ’s 4.3, typical results for the time period. Jacobson’s contract expires this summer, but both sides seem inclined to continue the relationship.
The fifth-largest TV market in the country, Boston TV sometimes gets rapped for being too tradition-bound, its newscasts a little eggheaded: With nearly 40 colleges in the region, an endless stream of local experts weigh in on TV reports. The news operations at Boston stations are probably more high-brow than a viewer would find in other cities. But while news trends like increased story counts, shorter packages and more graphics changed news elsewhere, stations in the market held on longer to their traditional ways.
SLOW TO CHANGE?
One explanation, says new WBZ President/GM Julio Marenghi, is the market’s ownership mix. A Boston native who started his local-broadcast career in WBZ’s mailroom, he can draw off experience in big markets like San Francisco and New York. In other top-10 markets, most stations are O&Os, which often conform to a very specific network style. For many years, Boston stations were all closely run affiliates that did what they wanted. That, says Marenghi, allowed the market “to hold on to its old ways for a long time.” WBZ and Fox station WFXT are O&Os but have been only since the mid 1990s.
Few people understand Beantown better than La Camera. A third-generation Bostonian, he has worked at WCVB since its first day, starting as public-affairs director. He got his MBA at night from Boston University and studied station operations. His father, Anthony, was a highly regarded Boston TV critic.
“Over-the-air television is an invited guest in the home,” La Camera says. “It is a special responsibility.” Stations, he says, need to provide quality programming and give back with public service. Rare among station executives these days, he often shares his views in on-air editorials, which he writes and tapes each week.
Boston was rocked in 1993 when Sunbeam Broadcasting owner Ed Ansin bought WHDH and imported a fast-paced, flashy news style from its Fox affiliate WSVN Miami. News Director Joel Cheatwood, famous for his “if it bleeds, it leads” brand of local news, led the charge. “They turned the market upside down with a lot of sizzle—graphics, aggressive reporting and fast-paced presentation—that the market had never seen,” says WCVB Creative Services Director Paul Baldwin.
(Further complicating the landscape, WBZ, which had been an NBC affiliate, became a CBS-owned station when Westinghouse bought CBS in 1994 and WHDH switched to NBC.)
The new WHDH caught WCVB and WBZ by surprise. They ratcheted up the look and pace of their newscasts. Some Boston TV observers say WCVB responded by cutting down on its substance for style. “WCVB was like the race car in front of all the others with no one on the road ahead. Then they started looking in the rearview mirror,” says former WCVB reporter David Ropeik, who spent 22 years at the station and is now a director at Harvard University’s Center for Risk Analysis. Ropeik says the station became more homogenized and “designed to appeal to the broadest possible demographic.”
These are notions station executives vehemently reject. “Initially, we may have overreacted,” says La Camera, “but we found a balance.”
On a recent night in February, the 11 p.m. newscasts displayed some of the effects of flashier news presentation. WHDH, WBZ and WCVB all covered largely the same stories—a looming snowstorm, fishermen rescued at sea and a sexual assault in a quiet suburb. Each had gimmicks. On WHDH, an overhead camera zoomed around the studio. A cartoonish graphic chalkboard outlined a suburban school’s proposals to make up snow days. WBZ breathlessly hyped an “Only on 4” story about changes to Fenway Park. Beyond repeatedly alerting viewers of fresh reports with “new at 11!,” WCVB just seemed calmer, although the station recently added slick new graphics and music. On all three stations, anchors spent part of the newscasts in front of huge video walls. (WBZ says it is phasing out those standups.)
Late-news ratings are a battle. For the first time since 1999, WCVB posted top household ratings in January, edging out WHDH by a tenth of a rating point. WHDH, however, delivered more adults 25-54. But even when ABC was doing badly—like last season—WCVB remained competitive.
Station revenues are equally well-matched. Boston TV stations will take in $613 million in revenue in 2005, according to BIA Financial. WHDH led the market in 2003—the most recent sales figures available—with $140.6 million in revenue. WCVB was second with $117.4 million, edging out WBZ’s $113.5 million.
To grow, WCVB once again emphasizes hometown ties. As more national spot business goes to the broadcast and cable networks, “this market has increasingly gone more heavily local,” says WCVB General Sales Manager Andy Hoffman.
In 2004, he says, 54% of market revenue came from local advertisers, up from an even 50-50 split a few years before.
IMPACT OF PEOPLE METERS
Nothing has affected the local sales scene as much as the arrival of Nielsen’s local people meters (LPMs). Boston was the first market to introduce the new measurement system, in 2002, replacing the old paper diaries with a new electronic monitoring system. Initially, Boston stations saw ratings drop (an experience shared in the other LPM markets: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco). One theory is that Nielsen participants used to record broadcast stations in their diaries out of habit disproportionate to actual viewing and LPMs electronically monitor viewing. Boston stations had to cope with lower ratings and pushback from advertisers to adjust rates. “A 10 rating in April 2002 could be a 6 rating [with LPMs],” says Hoffman. Fortunately, he says, 2002 was a big political year, which tightened the inventory. With LPM experience, the market has settled down.
Long before the Boston news and ratings shakeups, WCVB endured its own tumult. Originally CBS affiliate WHDH (not to be confused with the present-day WHDH), the station was started in 1957 by the Boston Herald-Traveler Corp., which also published a local newspaper. In 1969, the FCC revoked the license over concerns about media crossownership and awarded the station to local ownership group Boston Broadcasters Inc., which promised deep local programming. Boston Broadcasters promptly switched affiliation to ABC, and WCVB signed on on March 19, 1972. In 1981, it was sold to Metromedia.
WCVB’s new owner ran the station from afar for several years. Metromedia chief John Kluge rarely visited but, in 1985, decided to unload his station group to Rupert Murdoch, except for WCVB. La Camera and a group of station executives mounted an unsuccessful bid to buy the station, and Kluge sold it to Hearst for a then-record $450 million. That turned out for the best, La Camera says. When the economy turned sour in the late 1980s, the station would have been over-leveraged. “We would have lost it,” he says.
WCVB’s ownership saga is documented in two books.
THE CROWN JEWEL
From La Camera on down to assistant producers, the station’s 250 employees are encouraged to participate in civic affairs. Staffers say it is one of WCVB’s attractions. “When you interview for a job here, it is almost like they are screening you to be part of the community,” says morning anchor Heather Unruh, who interned at the station in college. She participates in up to 10 events a month.
One of its largest efforts is Commonwealth 5, a Web site that matches donors with nonprofit organizations. Through the Web site, in-need groups have received athletic equipment, money, game tickets and even farm-fresh eggs. These stories are highlighted in PSAs, which unlike many stations, WCVB often runs at times people are actually awake.
Of all the local efforts, the five-day-a-week Chronicle is the station’s crown jewel. “In Massachusetts, we consider 60 Minutes to be merely the national extension of Chronicle,” says Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who serves on the House Telecommunications Committee. “It serves as a shining example of excellence in local broadcasting.”
Chronicle can “let a story breathe,” says Managing Editor Susan Sloane. “We delve further and let you experience a story.” The show’s 25-person staff is separate from the news department. Chronicle regularly pulls in an 8 rating in its visible 7:30 p.m. timeslot, outdistancing its competition Entertainment Tonight and Extra.
WCVB proudly stays ahead of the technological curve. It was the first East Coast station with a mobile satellite truck. In 1998, it became the first New England station to launch a high-definition channel.
The most recent venture is a video-on-demand trial with Comcast Cable in which WCVB’s newscasts and Chronicle are available for free on-demand. WCVB is the only station involved in the experiment.
“People thought I was a fool to give our product away for free, but I think of it is a brand extension,” says La Camera. “And I want to be first.”