R.I.P. WGBH-TV’s TOCN: The Aftermath Before Greater Boston

And WGBH, despite a tradition as the “Tiffany” station in the Public Broadcasting System [ahem… “Service”], is no exception. ’GBH is a national powerhouse, producing shows such as Frontline (the one shining exception to PBS’s public-affairs vacuum), NovaThis Old House, and Masterpiece Theatre, filling about one-third of PBS’s prime-time line-up. But when it comes to local programming, WGBH’s call letters for most of the ’90s might as well have been AWOL.

Dan Kennedy, The Boston Phoenix February 7th, 1997

In 1997, Dan Kennedy who was the media writer for the Boston Phoenix, the once “alternative” paper in the area; did a writeup on the inaugural week of Greater Boston. Kennedy brought this ol article back into light on his blog after the cancelation of Beat The Press a couple Thursdays ago.

I am not going to quote the very lengthy article in verbatim (because that’s what alternative papers are, long-winded) but I would like to bullet-point specific parts that relate to what ended The Ten O’ Clock News, how Christopher Lydon moved over to WBUR-FM and actually this year marked the 20th anniversary of his dismissal at ‘BUR; because this article highlights the midpoint of Lydon’s career at 90.9.

And just to clarify, Emily Rooney quasi-retired from WGBH-TV at the end of 2014, when Jim Bradue came from NECN to take over hosting the program, while her show Beat The Press (of which she owns the registered trademark, not WGBH) continued and she hosted to it’s very end. The article does not state this program because it didn’t go on the air till the following year in 1998.

The article explains where WGBH wanted to remind viewers that GB wasn’t a replacement for TOCN…

But it’s Greater Boston that will (or won’t) get ’GBH back onto the local-public-affairs map. Rooney and WGBH officials know how high the expectations are. That’s why they warn that the half-hour show is not intended as a substitute for The Ten O’Clock News.

Most of the action takes place in the studio, making it considerably cheaper — about $750,000 per year as opposed to upwards of $3 million for the News. (Indeed, WGBH’s local-programming budget is just $5 million, out of a total of $143 million for the WGBH Educational Foundation, which includes both television stations, a sister station in Springfield, and WGBH.)

Not to mention that $143 million shows how much the budget goes to all the other programs. Obviously in 2021, I think it’s safe to say, the budget has shrank, and shrank even on the national shows there is more underwriters. For instance on the national level, the rookie season of Frontline in 1983 had 3 underwriters, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Public Television Viewers (read Viewers Like You) and the Chubb insurance company, and 4 other member PBS stations pitching in, via Miami, Seattle, Detroit and New York up until the late 1990s. In the 2021 season, there’s multiple underwriters that goes to at least a few pages long and WGBH by themselves is carrying the big ol show.

Then, too, Greater Boston is intended as a magazine-style show, not a newscast. Some of the lighter topics wouldn’t be out of place on WCVB’s Chronicle, which Greater Boston executive producer Judy Stoia helped get off the ground 15 years ago. Others — such as the Charles Murray interview and media chit-chat with Nieman Foundation curator Bill Kovach — aim for more highbrow appeal.

I never compared GB to Chronicle. Or ever thought it was a magazine.  If anything, there might be an up-tone if compared against Chronicle.

And WGBH, despite a tradition as the “Tiffany” station in the Public Broadcasting System [ahem… “Service”], is no exception. ’GBH is a national powerhouse, producing shows such as Frontline (the one shining exception to PBS’s public-affairs vacuum), NovaThis Old House, and Masterpiece Theatre, filling about one-third of PBS’s prime-time line-up. But when it comes to local programming, WGBH’s call letters for most of the ’90s might as well have been AWOL.

I want to add some perspective to the on air branding that was completely under looked by the Kennedys of the market; that in 1994 or 1995, the drop-shadow 2 logo was nixed (that mimicked the WGBH logo) and ‘GBH 2 became the new on-air brand. Sure there was ‘GBH the Member’s Magazine. When the logo changed last September and the “W” being completely dumped, this is when I started sound alarms. Paging  Tape Librarian! 

The next series of paragraphs focuses on Lydon’s transition to radio, after TOCN

The success of The Connection is ironic: it was Lydon who was co-anchor and impresario-in-chief of The Ten O’Clock News. For anyone who watched him in his WGBH incarnation, Lydon’s transformation during the two years since The Connection went on the air is startling. Gone is the ponderous, elitist don of The Ten O’Clock News. In his place is a sharper, more focused Lydon, the (dare one say it?) populist Lydon whose guerrilla campaign for mayor of Boston in 1993 succeeded in moving public education to the top of the city’s agenda. It’s no exaggeration to say that Lydon finally found his voice in that campaign, when he promised rhetorically to “blow up” school-committee headquarters.

Oh boy that last sentence couldn’t fly in today’s world.

Lydon’s success is a natural outgrowth of an effort that began at WBUR nearly 20 years ago. Starting in the 1970s, general manager Jane Christo took what had been a tiny college station owned by Boston University and built it into a phenomenon with a $7 million annual budget. According to its research, it attracts more than 400,000 listeners during any given week, making it one of the most popular stations in Boston.

Christo, who could not be interviewed for this article because she was vacationing in Morocco, had one crucial insight: that there was a market for round-the-clock news and information. That insight enabled WBUR to capitalize five and a half years ago, when WEEI Radio (AM 850) switched from all news to all sports.

And it enabled ’BUR to pull ahead of WGBH Radio (89.7 FM), which stuck with a mostly music format while Christo filled WBUR’s schedule with everything that National Public Radio and other news services had to offer.

Kennedy writes praise to Jane Christo; whom of which by the early 00s was let go, to some of the insiders of the local media, she was known to be rough, which would explain why the breakup with Lydon and his producer in early 2001 made headlines. WGBH didn’t have a secondary radio station, their arts and culture content was their niche, and until the acquisition of then commercially licensed WCRB in 2009, this allowed WGBH to air local issues and leaving 89-7 for jazz in the evening.

It’s possible to quibble with WBUR’s priorities. But in the realm of news and public affairs, ’BUR is nevertheless considerably ahead of WGBH — not just the radio station, but the television station as well. And WGBH-TV’s near-absence following the cancellation of The Ten O’Clock News is not just a Boston phenomenon, but the reflection of a national trend that has its roots in public-broadcasting governance as well as broader social and cultural changes.

WGBH was one of the few PBS stations in the country that produced a newscast format, the only other station I can think of was New Jersey Network, that ran for 40 years before their operations was cut in 2011, June 30th marked it’s decade death-versary.

The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) [ahem, second typo on Service] was established as a decentralized television network whose programming is supplied by member stations, many of which are run like little fiefdoms, conscious of their turf and prerogatives. Danny Schechter, of Globalvision, an independent production company in New York that has had trouble getting PBS to pick up shows such as its human-rights series, Rights & Wrongs, quips that “Bill Moyers once told me, ‘If you think the war in the Balkans is bad, consider what would happen if you armed the PBS stations.’” By contrast, the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act established NPR as a centralized operation with a clear mandate to produce news and public-affairs programming.

This decentralized approach is basically a moot-point now with PBS…especially as commercial networks require local stations to pay affiliate fees, of which at the time of Kennedy’s article, this was clearest line of what made PBS different versus the Big 4.

Long Island University journalism professor Ralph Engelman reports that American Playhouse, produced by WGBH, once canceled a $400,000 grant to make a show on union organizing in 19th-century Lowell. The chairman of ’GBH at the time: James Lowell, a descendant of the city’s founders.

In 1980, the Committee To Make Public Broadcasting Public filed a complaint with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, charging that ’GBH was violating equal-opportunity laws and ignoring local programming so that it could pursue national glory. The complaint went nowhere.

Throughout this time, WGBH offered various forms of local news that were often praised, generally thoughtful, and rarely watched. The late Louis Lyons read the news from 1955 to ’73 without benefit of any graphics or filmed reports — which was just the way he liked it. From 1970 to ’73, WGBH broadcast The Reporters, which focused on neighborhood, local, and state issues; The Ten O’Clock News made its debut in 1976.

As you read below, I’m glad Dan Kennedy brought up this article, as your’s truly has done a number of write ups on it’s 30 year death-versary. Apparently Lydon isn’t public broadcasting’s furry little teddy bear.

The story surrounding the demise of the News remains so fresh and painful for those involved that few are willing to speak about it — including its former co-anchor and driving force, Christopher Lydon, whose bitterness toward WGBH is well known but who declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this article

Apparently Carmen Fields wasn’t available for comment either. It’s ironic that she wasn’t brought up, since she co-anchored from 1987 to May of 91.

Suffice to say that Lydon, an eccentric, energetic former reporter for the Boston Globe and the New York Times, was responsible for most of what was good about the News — principally his sharp interviews, including a famous 1990 sitdown in which he asked BU president and gubernatorial candidate John Silber whether he’d ever thought of himself as a Public Enemy rap song. Then, too, Lydon also must take the blame for what was bad: weak production standards that undermined its strong explanatory pieces, its obsession with arcana, and a preciousness that led to the show’s being mocked as “The Brattle Street Alert.”

On YouTube, years that have gone by, ol VHS or Betamax recordings of the program have been digitized for the world to see. I will say there was a up-tone on at least Lydons copy, the five or so reporters were more middle of the road in writing. It’s not to say he was strange or a bad person on camera either.

Starting in the late 1980s, insiders say, station officials began making plans to get rid of Lydon, and to replace the News — whose low ratings weren’t helped by the rise of local 10 p.m. commercial newscasts — with a show very much like Greater Boston.

The only game in town was WLVI (of which snatched the title a few years later for their 10:00 show, was branded The News At Ten for most of it’s time under the Gannett ownership.) I think it’s safe to say the “low ratings” was how much viewers you could get within the 128 beltway because the up-tone couldn’t get past the 495 radius. Middlesex County for the time had over a million residents, but that also borders against New Hampshire, and the Boston population was at a half a million. I am not talking about  media audience, which is a different measure.

The idea, according to Lydon critics, was to sweep away the principal obstacle to upgrading the show’s production values and to encourage more team effort, which was anathema to the notoriously control-obsessed Lydon.

I don’t know what “team effort” meant in the early 90s, because that word can means so much to many people.

Lydon’s defenders say the machinations were considerably more malevolent: some officials were just sick and tired of Lydon’s stirring up controversy. Among other things, Lydon was hugely interested in whether Silber had improperly enriched himself as BU president — and Silber was a member of the ’GBH board. Lydon and company were also in hot pursuit of then-State Senate president Bill Bulger, Silber’s chief political patron.

Billy Bulger, my suspicion is safe to say had a lot of influence. He may not had literal dead bodies like his now dead brother “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious gangster of Boston who made headlines when he ran away in the mid 1990s and was caught in summer of 2011, a month after Osama Bin Laden’s capture, putting  him back on the Most Wanted by the FBI at the time. Well if you read on…maybe Lydon et al was a political hit job…

The execution, in May 1991, took place as scheduled. But a funny thing happened on the way to the resurrection. Station officials lost their nerve, giving Lydon an interview show and getting rid of the planned magazine-style show. The person who was supposed to be fired kept his job. The News staffers who were supposed to be brought back ended up unemployed.

We were supposed to get Greater Boston. Instead, we got The Group.

Until now.

The Group should be the program that be brought up today for any of the GenZers/Millennials of What Not to Produce in 2021 on a Major Market Public Broadcaster that has Flagship Status. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *