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No News Is Bad News for WGBH : Television: PBS Boston flagship station’s nightly ‘Ten O’Clock News’ has become a victim of ‘current economic conditions’ after 15 years.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A local public-television program was being pulled from the air. Along the banks of the Charles River, the reactions reached seismic proportions.

“I can’t imagine life without ‘The Ten O’Clock News,’ ” declared Robert B. Reich, a Harvard economist, when he heard that the show on WGBH had been canceled.

“Evelyn Riesman and I organize our schedules so that we will be home . . . to see ‘The Ten O’Clock News,’ ” David Riesman, a Harvard sociologist who is the author of “The Lonely Crowd,” wrote in a letter to officials of this area’s public-television station.

“You and your management team ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” grumbled a note from Tom Winship, a former editor of the Boston Globe.

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But “current economic conditions” had caught up with WGBH, a statement from President Henry P. Becton Jr. said. The 15-year-old “Ten O’Clock News,” a nightly staple that never earned a large audience but did win a special fondness among Boston’s literary and intellectual communities, would be canceled as of May 31.

“The fact that people are making a fuss about it is not surprising,” said David B. Liroff, vice president and station manager at WGBH. “There are many people who value the broadcast. I am among them, and I will miss it.”

No more so than Christopher Lydon, the show’s longtime anchor. Lydon blasted the move by WGBH as indicative of “a national trend to get public television out of local life.”

Lydon added that he was stunned by what he saw as the station’s betrayal of its mandate as a public-television entity. “It never occurred to me that (WGBH) would bury its proudest standard, the news,” Lydon said. “It’s like the New York Times going porno.”

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Outside the Boston area, WGBH is best known as the producer or presenting station of about one-third of the programs shown nationally on public television, including “Nova,” “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Mystery!,” “Frontline,” “This Old House,” “Victory Garden” and “Yankee Workshop.”

But funding for those programs is restricted by the foundations and corporations that provide it, station spokeswoman Jeanne Hopkins explained. Money for “The Ten O’Clock News” and other local productions comes primarily from viewer contributions, and the WGBH membership pledge drive this spring was disappointing, she said. Viewers are feeling the effects of a flagging New England economy themselves, Hopkins said, and donations were markedly smaller than in the past.

As a result, while “WGBH is really fine and solid--in fact, as an institution, we’re really growing,” Hopkins said, “the local side of our programming is suffering because it is (funded by) a different set of sources” than the national shows.

Hopkins said that, to save money, 30 positions will be cut from the WGBH staff. The station’s monthly magazine will also be scaled down, she said. But most of the savings will come from killing “The Ten O’Clock News.”

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Becton’s announcement said that “The Ten O’Clock News” represented a disproportionate expense, consuming “more than one-third” of WGBH’s annual programming budget yet accounting for only 255 hours of air time against a total of 13,000 hours broadcast by the station each year. Hopkins said a switch to a “studio-based” show that eliminated the costly street-reporting component of “The Ten O’Clock News” could shave about a third off the program’s $3-million yearly budget.

David Boeri, a reporter for “The Ten O’Clock News,” was contemptuous of the station’s lament that local news shows on commercial television, CNN and regional cable news had changed the television landscape since “The Ten O’Clock News” was introduced.

“They are a network wanna-be,” Boeri said. Like its commercial counterparts, WGBH shuns coverage of its own back yard, he charged, in favor of more exotic stories. “National and international news is glitzy,” Boeri said. “Local is gritty.”

But Liroff, the station manager, suggested that at least some aspects of local programming may be increasingly irrelevant.

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“If people see a program on child sexual abuse and call the station and say, ‘I now understand why my life is so screwed up,’ the fact that that show was produced in Chicago doesn’t mean anything to the viewer in Boston,” Liroff said. “It is the height of arrogance to say that the program doesn’t provide community service because it wasn’t produced here.”

Only a handful of cities--Phoenix and Dayton among them--retain local news shows on their public-television stations, Liroff said. Boeri was unimpressed. “They want to make a big deal out of the fact that we are the only one, as if we’re the dinosaur that must die,” Boeri said.

The fury over dropping “The Ten O’Clock News” brought about 100 protesters to the station recently. Some chanted and carried posters, including one that read “PBS, Without the P It’s Just BS.” Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn joined in the demonstration. Several days later, an advertisement signed by about 80 “distinguished writers” calling themselves the Friends of The Ten O’Clock News appeared on the television page of the Boston Globe.

“It is part of (WGBH’s) duty to the public as a public-television station to broadcast a show like this,” one of those writers, Robie Macauley, the former executive editor of Houghton Mifflin, fumed.

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Hopkins said that the program will be replaced with a “Ten O’Clock Something,” although Liroff said the “Ten O’Clock Something” will probably air at 7:30 p.m. This seeming incongruity is nothing new; in recent months, “The Ten O’Clock News” has been seen at 11 o’clock. Since joining forces with “Frontline” to cover the war in the Persian Gulf, “The Ten O’Clock News” has also tended to do more single-issue coverage, with input from experts and observers from the Boston area.

Liroff said these “perspective and analysis” elements that viewers most cherish in the present show will be preserved. The new incarnation of the program “will deal with issues of interest to the local community,” Liroff promised, and will be “more talk than not.”


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