ON MARCH 19, the 17-year legal battle for control of television channel five in Boston ended on an anticlimactic note as WHDH-TV quietly left the air and was replaced by the new licensee, WCVB. The case had followed a tortuous legal path involving three Supreme Court decisions, two U.S. District Court of Appeals rulings, and five rulings by the Federal Communications Commission. The new station, owned and operated by Boston Broadcasters Incorporated (BBI) and counting several prominent Harvard professors among its stockholders and board of directors, promised to make improvements and innovations in educational, science, health, and children's programming, and community-orientated shows. The Boston Herald-Traveler Corporation, which owned WHDH-TV, promised to fold if it lost the station.
Three months later WCVB-TV still struggled to implement the changes it promised, while, true to its word, the Herald-Traveler announced that it would cease publication on June 18 after 125 years of publication, and sell its plant and assets to the Hearst Corporation for $8.5 million. The paper had staked its survival on a successful court battle to retain the license for channel five, worth an estimated $50 million. The profits of WHDH had more than made up for the huge operating deficits the paper had sustained in recent years. Without this financial transfusion, the paper seemed doomed.
This proved to be the case when Harold Clancy, President of the Boston Herald-Traveler Corporation, announced the death of his paper. Clancy explained that the loss of Channel Five had cut off "the source of funds essential to continue newspaper operation." He explained that "efforts to find a buyer for our newspaper willing to undertake the burden of three-newspaper competition in the Boston market" had failed, and the sale to the Hearst interests, which publishes the Boston Record-American, a daily tabloid, had been financially expedient.
BUT WITH the demise of the Herald-Traveler, Boston lost one of its three remaining daily newspapers, adding to a sad nationwide trend which has seen the number of papers in New York, for example, plumet from as many as ten to a bare minimum of two, with just one daily morning newspaper--The New York Times.
It is hard to assess what positive effects the new station, WCVB, and the new ownership, BBI, will have on the television media, or, for that matter, in taking up the informational gap that will no doubt be left by the departure of the Herald-Traveler. Reviews in the Boston Globe and the Phoenix of the new station and its "innovative" programming were mixed. But Robert G. Gardner '48, lecturer on Visual Studies and a member of BBI's board of directors, says that many changes are still in planning, which limits the accuracy of Boston reviews. "The first two months have been primarily to shake down the new station and the personnel," Gardner said.
WCVB appears little different from its predecessor, even to the point of retaining intact WHDH news staff. But there seems to be reason for a wait-and-see attitude. Gardner said that a major effort will be made improving WCVB's news programs, a move which might minimize the informational gap created by the death of the Herald-Traveler. He expected WCVB news to be doing more investigative reporting, and to use better graphics and visual aids.
In other areas, WCVB has made a start, but a slow one. New children's programs have been added, as have such worthwhile (but inherently boring) educational and health programs such as "Medical Call." Community-oriented shows were what BBI desired most, and the station has more local programing. Gardner claims, than any other in Boston, or perhaps in the country. The 30 to 35 hours a week of local programing bear this out.
The number of interesting, well-argued editorials has also been vastly increased. But WCVB's programing diet still depends on re-runs, old movies, soap operas, and network prime time shows, all of which are of debatable quality and importance. Also when WCVB took over the ABC affiliate in Boston--with Channel Seven, WNAC gaining the CBS shows--the station took on a network that has consistently run behind both CBS and NBC in the all-important ratings. But Gardner promised that the viewer would soon see a lot of "unexpected things," mentioning 30 to 60 second, non-commercial mini-documentaries.
If WCVB is after innovation, it does have an impressive staff interested in its change. Included are Oscar Handlin, Warren Professor of American History, who has already had a marked impact on the editorial policy of the station Dr. John Knowles '47, director of the Rockefeller Foundation; the aforementioned Gardner; and Gerald Holton, professor of Physics, whose science programs are still on the drawing board.
Whether BBI has the money to develop and create the programs that these men envision may be another matter. The stockholder group is extremely small--only 25 or 30 people--but most are either heavily engaged in day-to-day commitments, or in policy. Although Gardner said that most of the changes will be worked out sometime this Fall, he admitted that the station had to "get out from debt and the shakedown" before they could contemplate implementation.