Fans protest as WGBH reshapes its newscast
Local production rethinking coincides with national debate
Originally published in Current, April 29, 1991
By Steve Behrens
After airing a nightly news program for 36 years, WGBH, Boston, is taking a barrage of criticism for its plan to replace its Ten O'Clock News with a less expensive nightly production.
The station said this month it would end the half-hour newscast May 31  and start its replacement in September.
Judy Stoia, executive producer of WGBH's AIDS Quarterly and a former Ten O'Clock News managing editor, has been assigned to create a new program, working under Peter McGhee, program manager for national productions and the original creator of Ten O'Clock.
In response to projected budget deficits, the station is cutting 45 jobs, including 20 news positions and 25 in its local broadcasting arm, says station spokeswoman Jeanne Hopkins. Later this year the station may hire about 15 people for the new program, she says.
''The downturn in the New England economy has finally caught up with WGBH, forcing us to make some hard choices about the way in which we serve our local community,'' President Henry Becton Jr. told station members in the May program guide.
But implications of the announcement reach beyond New England to public TV nationwide. WGBH, a leading station that persisted in financing a daily newscast, has decided to cut back--openly reconsidering the costs and value of its local programs at a time when public TV is debating a recent national study that advocates doing just that.
Since the cancelation was announced April 5, fans of the sober and slightly eccentric newscast have been imploring the station to reconsider. Print columnists and editorialists have piped up, famous names have been signed to newspaper ads appealing for the show, hundreds of Ten O'Clock supporters have called or written, and others have rallied at the station. Some staffers have taken to wearing buttons with ''LOCAL'' printed in red.
The station is getting ''beat over the head'' says television station manager David Liroff, despite the fact that it has produced the show for 15 years, has had some form of nightly news program for 36 years, and plans to resume a nightly show in September.
Few public television stations produce any kind of daily public affairs show. Audience researchers David LeRoy and Judith LeRoy found 18 stations with nightly programs, out of 57 major stations they surveyed.
Coanchor Christopher Lydon hopes the hullabaloo will lead WGBH to reconsider.
''I don't think the station has known before that this is the kind of following we have--an awful lot more people--and more active, more important, more indomitable people--than we realized,'' says Lydon. Some have offered money to keep the show going, he adds. ''You don't sell out the crown jewels because there's a momentary recession.''
Watching the program die is ''excruciatingly painful,'' Lydon told the Boston Globe. ''It's a pain that's directly proportional to the privilege and pleasure of working on this program, and I'm sad beyond any power to say it.''
''Mix of considerations''
Defenders of the program complain that they've heard various reasons given for the cancelation, and management confirms there was more than one.
The decision was based on ''a mix of editorial and financial considerations,'' says Liroff. It grew out of several parallel planning processes.
WGBH started reviewing the content of Ten O'Clock last March, Liroff says. The station was also planning for its public affairs role in the '90s and undertaking an overall strategic plan. Outside the station, meanwhile, Liroff joined the steering committee of a CPB-commissioned national study by the Boston Consulting Group.
Liroff denies the national study was connected to WGBH's decision, except that all of the planning processes occur in the same reality: ''It has become abundantly clear in the last year or two that unless we assess just what our appropriate role is, we may we be allocating our resource base to old ideas that are no longer relevant.''
What kind of newscast?
The first factor driving the Ten O'Clock decision was the editorial assessment, Liroff says. As part of its news content review, management asked trustees, Community Advisory Board members and others what WGBH could give its viewers, Liroff has said. ''They mentioned context and perspective, but no one mentioned daily news coverage as distinct,'' he told the Globe. ''They would say, 'Oh, we can get that elsewhere.' ''
Indeed, four other Boston stations and a cable channel carry local newscasts, and the larger ones (with many hours of news to produce) spend perhaps four times Ten O'Clock's budget on newsgathering, according to an outside news executive.
''Viewers can choose among many hours of local news, several broadcasts at 10 p.m., and soon a 24-hour news channel,'' Becton said in the May program guide.
''In some aspects the program is excellent and unduplicated,'' says Liroff. ''There are other aspects that are duplicated by other media.''
And by dropping the duplicative electronic newsgathering, WGBH will also help forestall a budget shortfall.
For the current fiscal year, through August, WGBH projected a $600,000 revenue shortfall if it didn't cut costs, according to Liroff. Local revenues aren't keeping up with inflation. ''The economy here is really in a funk,'' he explains. ''It appears we will make it through this year with significant negative effect from that shortfall.''
But the finance staff sees a $3 million deficit looming for fiscal 1992, Liroff says. Cutting costs on the nightly show will save ''between $750,000 and $1 million,'' he says.
That will come out of the current newscast budget of about $3 million a year. WGBH is now spending a third of its total program purchase and production allocation for about 2 percent of its air time, Liroff observes.
The station will save some more money by trimming costs at its program guide, but it spared two long-running minority-audience weekly programs, Say Brother and La Plaza.
To Ten O'Clock reporter David Boeri and some of his colleagues, cutting back on field production isn't just an economy measure but a retreat from community responsibilities.
''How can you do stories on bad housing in a studio talk show, about gangs in the streets in a hermetically sealed public affairs show? You can't do it,'' says Boeri, an activist in a WGBH union, the Association of Employees of the Educational Foundation. ''How are you going to reveal toxic waste sites? You can't do it.''
''My sense,'' says coanchor Lydon, ''is that there is this very suicidal impulse in public television to save a few bucks and get out of their communities, and that is exactly in the wrong direction.''
Paraphrasing famous Boston pol Tip O'Neill, Lydon contends that all news is local. ''For public television to suppose it can hold onto an audience talking about universal problems is fatuous, I think. You gotta get local. Think global, broadcast local.''
Lydon himself is a major distinction between Ten O'Clock and other Boston newscasts. The thatch-haired former Boston Globe and New York Times reporter has fronted the program since 1979 and brings an almost literary tone to anchoring. Though he bears the stamp of the Ivy League, Lydon teaches writing to prisoners, sings in a black Baptist choir and ''revels in his unofficial role of nonconformist/provocateur/gadfly,'' reporter Mark Jurkowitz wrote in the Boston Phoenix recently.
Jurkowitz said that the ''egghead'' Lydon pairs well with ''common-sensical and cool'' coanchor Carmen Fields, who was described as a ''regal news queen'' by another newspaper.
The program's broadcasts on WGBH and its UHF sister station WGBX together get a 1 rating, but ''for evidence of faithful viewership,'' Liroff suggests listening to the storm of cancelation complaints.
Other Bostonians are turned off by the program's measured pace and style. ''It's a horrible newscast,'' says a Boston newsman in commercial TV. ''The few times I've watched, it was so boring, I just turned it off.'' On the air, Lydon ''seems to be a stuffed-shirt, uncomfortable, bad anchor.''
Emily Rooney, news director at WCVB, which airs the city's most-watched newscasts, acknowledges that Ten O'Clock gives a story more time during a single newscast than a commercial newscast does. ''All of their live interviews have been well done and provocative--entertaining even,'' says Rooney. ''They do an extremely good job of covering the statehouse--that's something they could point to and crow about. And they have done well on environmental issues.''
But Ten O'Clock loses viewers because it shuns stories its producers ''would term sensationalistic or pedestrian,'' says Rooney.
''The program has sort of become a caricature of itself,'' with Lydon's ''sort of aristocratic approach'' and his ''extremely well-developed vocabulary,'' but that doesn't bother its fans, Rooney observes. ''When you watch the program, you buy into that.''
Now the fans may have to try something different.
WGBH's replacement show will have less field production, the station has predicted. Otherwise, Liroff declines to speculate about the new format. ''What they wanted to do is clear the slate'' and conceive a ''unique and excellent'' program the station can afford, he says.
The program will be analytical, judging from management's general comments. The commercial media's role is to ''show people what's happening today,'' Liroff says, while public broadcasting's role is to ''explain to people what's happening these days.''
No one's saying whether Lydon and Fields will return. ''The anchors have been invited to participate in the development of the new program,'' says Liroff.
''Nobody's invited me to plan anything,'' Lydon responds.
The program's air time also may change. Officials are considering 7:30 p.m., with a repeat at 10 p.m., Liroff says. One of the broadcasts could be carried on WGBX.
Since September, WGBH has aired Ten O'Clock on tape at 11 p.m., to make way for PBS programming, says Hopkins. It appears live at 10 on WGBX.
The rethinking of WGBH's local programming coincides with the release of CPB's Boston Consulting Group study, which recommended that all public TV stations reconsider their local services to free up funds to invest in improved national programming for both educational and general audiences.
Liroff, who served prominently on the national study's steering committee of station officials, says there was no connection between the study and WGBH's decision. He joined the steering committee last summer, he says, because it seemed likely to deal with issues of the kind already under consideration at his station. And he ended up coauthoring the report's preface, which commended the report without endorsing all of its conclusions. The study stops far short of rejecting local production entirely and so does Liroff.
''We are absolutely committed to local-only production,'' he says.
At the same time, Liroff argues that many national programs, from WGBH and other producers, are intensely relevant to Bostonians' lives. A Bill Moyers documentary on the education crisis or a segment relevant to teenage pregnancy on a WGBH-produced videodisc deal with real concerns of local people, Liroff contends. ''Does the fact that a program is also of use in other markets diminish its value to a local community?'' he asks.
Since the station still wants to make some ''local-only'' programming, it will inevitably pay a premium to do it, Liroff points out. It will always cost more to make a show for one station's use than to share the cost of a national production among many stations.
The question for WGBH and its counterparts elsewhere is whether local-only programs are worth the premium. Reporter David Boeri worries that the cancelation will set a precedent in public TV nationwide. ''Because this place has been such a terrific institution,'' Boeri predicts, ''people are going to follow it.''
. Later news: Lydon in news again, 10 years later, as he fights for equity in radio talk show. . To Current's home page
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