That had been true of Channel 5 for years, and since BBI had promised the FCC it would show a commitment to the community, and since its local owners poured much of its profits back into local programming, the station had, indeed, become a quality operation. In February 1981 the New York Times ran a highly flattering feature on Channel 5 that asked the rhetorical question “Is This America’s Best TV Station?” It may well have been. But even as Bob Bennett was being interviewed by the Times’ Tony Schwartz, he was quietly negotiation with Metromedia president John Kluge to sell the station. And Metromedia picked up Channel 5 for an astounding $220 million a mere three months later. (Quinlan’s book should have been called The Two Hundred Twenty Million Dollar Lunch.) Those at Channel 5 reacted to the purchase with dismay, because Metromedia stations had a reputation for being strictly minor league, for doing little if any local programming, and for being milked dry by their absentee owners.
Nonetheless, Channel 5 survived nearly intact. Metromedia continued the investment in the station’s news and public affairs. On Saturday night, May 4, Channel 5 once again overwhelmed the competition at the annual New England Emmy Awards ceremony, winning 21 of the 50 awards given out, more than Channels 4 and 7 combined. (Still, the upstart, locally owned Channel 7 managed somehow to bring home its second straight regional Emmy for “Outstanding News Program.”) The otherwise boring Emmy-night ceremony also featured a bit of amusing repartee on the subject of Hearst’s imminent takeover of Channel 5. Channel 4’s Liz Walker whimsically introduced Channel 5’s Natalie Jacobson as Patty Hearst. (And Nat jokingly referred to Liz as Angela Davis.) And if you think that’s funny, Chet Curtis tried for a few laughs of his own a bit later, jokingly asking station manager S. James Coppersmith, “Will Hearst honor the current contracts?” There was barely a chuckle.
“There were all kinds of dire predictions when Metromedia took over, “ says Jim Thistle, who was the station’s news director at the time, “and none of them occurred.” But Thistle remains one of the many who are distressed at the station’s escalating price tag. “It’s sad,” he says. “The multinational concerns just keep gobbling each other up, and who knows where it will all end?” At Channel 5, of course, it’s ended with the sale of the station from one such concern to another – for $450 million. (Okay, Quinlan’s book should have been called The Four Hundred Fifty Million Dollar – And Counting – Lunch.) “The figures have gotten so crazy that local ownership is almost impossible,” says Thistle. “Like Hearst, you’d have to borrow the $450 million just to buy it, and you wouldn’t have that much to play around it. If the station losses money, they’ll put you in jail.”
Still, not everyone has given up trying to retain those local ties. Roughly two months ago, six Channel 5 executives – including Coppersmith, news director Phil Balboni, and medical editor Dr. Timothy Johnson – put in a last-minute bid to buy the station from Metromedia and bring it back home. They reportedly were willing to match the astounding sale price, but Metromedia’s Kluge turned them down, saying he’d already given Hearst the first option to buy. As Bennett explains it, Kluge had made such a verbal commitment back in ’81, when he sold station KMBC-TV, in Kansas City, to Hearst while raising money to buy Channel 5. “He’s a man of his word,” concludes Bennett.