Copyright © 1997 by the Boston Phoenix, Inc. All rights reserved.

This Just In: Media

A death in the family

By Dan Kennedy

The intense outpouring of grief prompted by Kirby Perkins's death on July 24 was more than a tribute to a fine reporter. It was an acknowledgment that WCVB-TV (Channel 5) continues to occupy a special place in the media firmament.

Internally, Channel 5 is unusual for its stability and esprit de corps. Many of the station's most visible journalists, such as Chet Curtis, Natalie Jacobson, Pam Cross, Jim Boyd, David Ropeik, Jorge Quiroga, Susan Wornick, and Perkins, have been with WCVB since the 1970s or early '80s. And in an industry that promotes "family" as a saleable commodity, WCVB is the real thing. Curtis and Jacobson are married, and Jacobson's on-air pregnancy was a pioneering event. Perkins himself took orders for several years from his wife, former news director Emily Rooney, now host of Greater Boston, on WGBH-TV (Channels 2 and 44).

"We bitch and moan, but we shouldn't lose sight of what we have. There are bonds of connectedness here that are quite extraordinary," says editorial director Marjorie Arons-Barron, who relied on Perkins for inside political gossip.

The program itself remains the gold standard. Its newscasts project authority and integrity, even on less-substantive fare. It's the only station that continues to broadcast editorials. Its Sunday-morning gabfest, Five on Five, is the city's leading public-affairs program. And Chronicle may be the only local magazine-style show on a commercial station left in the country.

The roots of WCVB's difference lie in its genesis: in 1972, the Federal Communications Commission, citing rules then in effect against cross-ownership, stripped Channel 5's license from the now defunct Boston Herald Traveler and awarded it to Boston Broadcasters, a local company that vowed to fill the airwaves with local programming. It succeeded well enough that the New York Times once labeled WCVB the best commercial TV station in the country. The station was sold in 1982, and then sold again in 1985 to its present owner, the Hearst Corporation.

Channel 5, it is true, has been moving toward shorter stories, faster pacing, and attention-grabbing graphics and teasers. And though WCVB hasn't slid nearly as far into the sensationalism-and-celebrity muck as WHDH-TV (Channel 7), its once-lofty status makes its imitative changes more painful to watch. Still, more often than not, Channel 5 beats Channel 7 for the number-one slot in the ratings wars. Obviously viewers prefer quality -- even diminished quality -- to tabloid journalism.

"What Kirby was really troubled by was the loss of a sense of mission," says Ropeik. "I don't think it's gone, and it's probably more alive here than anywhere else. But more and more it feels like we're struggling to keep it alive. Hopefully his passing will be a reminder to keep our noses pointing in that direction."