A beekeeper in Vermont. The aging population of Cape Cod. Road trips through Maine in a 1969 Chevy Impala. Not exactly the kind of hard-charging stories that lead newscasts in the fast, urgent world of Boston television.
Yet stories like those, often unfolding at a leisurely for-television, 30-minute pace, have made WCVB-TV’s (Channel 5) “Chronicle’’ news magazine show a Boston institution for three decades.
Locally produced feature programs have vanished at television stations across the country, the victims of budget cuts and a weakened economy, but “Chronicle’’ has been an unlikely survivor. It has been celebrating its 30th year this month, and is the oldest local news magazine show in the country.
Most stations carry syndicated programming in the early evenings (“Chronicle’’ airs at 7:30 p.m.) because it is cheaper to broadcast reruns of sitcoms and game shows, splitting ad revenues with a national syndicate, than to assemble local talent and crew members to produce a program that will air on only one station.
That makes “Chronicle’’ “pretty unique,’’ said Bill Carroll, a TV station adviser at Katz Television Group in New York City. “It’s indicative of the Boston market and [Channel 5]’s ongoing commitment to localism.’’
It can cost a station $30,000 to $40,000 a week in license fees to carry a syndicated national program such as the quiz show “Jeopardy!’’ or “Wheel of Fortune,’’ Carroll said. “Chronicle’’ is owned outright by WCVB-TV, which declined to reveal how much it costs to produce. Housed at WCVB-TV’s studios in Needham, “Chronicle’’ has 22 staffers who produce 130 episodes a year. But because it does not share the costs of the show, the station also does not need to share any advertising revenues it generates.
In the Boston ratings, the show jockeys between first and second place against “Jeopardy!’’ on WBZ-TV (Channel 4). “Chronicle,’’ which averages about 200,000 viewers, also competes with national entertainment show “Extra’’ and reruns of “The Simpsons.’’
“ ‘Chronicle’ is the little local show that can,’’ said Bill Fine, president and general manager of WCVB. “It routinely beats most of the [other] shows.’’
“Chronicle’’ has been a consistent revenue generator and adds value to the station’s brand, Fine said. “The beauty of ‘Chronicle’ is more than just the revenue the show generates. It’s really a break in the day.’’
There are only a few locally produced magazine-type shows left in the United States. Seattle has an “Evening Magazine’’ show, which airs weeknights, and San Francisco has a similar show called “Eye on the Bay.’’ Both began as a syndicated “Evening Magazine’’ program, which Westinghouse stations across the nation aired from 1977 to 1990.
“Chronicle’’ debuted in January 1982, with cohosts Chet Curtis, Jeanne Blake, and Donna Downes. That first episode of “Chronicle’’ aired segments about Provincetown in winter and an ashram in Essex. At first, its biggest competition was “Evening Magazine,’’ which was airing on WBZ-TV, but was canceled in 1990.
Over time, “Chronicle’’ added elements such as the “Main Streets Back Roads’’ and “On the Road’’ segments, which followed Peter Mehegan as he drove his gold-hued 1969 Chevy Impala around the region. Besides profiling local businesses and “best of’’ institutions to explore from Vermont to Rhode Island, the show has also taken viewers to international locales such as Ireland, Cuba, Ethiopia, and the Caribbean. More recent local pieces included Chelsea’s urban makeover, the challenges of gay Latino and black youths in Boston, and growing up biracial.
“The local flavor is one of the huge draws for that program,’’ said Robert Rosenthal, Suffolk University journalism department head, who has been tuning into the show since 1983. “A lot of people wind up taking trips to some of the places they feature.’’
Tucked in a separate newsroom within WCVB, a whiteboard highlights the “Chronicle’’ story assignments for the next few weeks; one on the board last week was called “Luxe for Less.’’ The feature will show Boston consumers where they can find high-end bargains at restaurants and designer showrooms. Another upcoming story will whisk viewers to the Bahamas for a winter escape.
“We shoot a little more, we take a little more time to edit, we really try to do a minidocumentary every night,’’ said Chris Stirling, the show’s executive producer.
“Chronicle’’ managing editor Susan Sloane believes part of the reason for the show’s longevity is its audience and coverage area.
“New England has so much to offer . . . mountains, the ocean, the beautiful scenery, and we have experts at our fingertips because of the colleges and universities,’’ said Sloane. “We can do a show about growing up biracial, and find someone who has written a book about it.’’