Executive who oversaw growth of station into a public TV powerhouse will leave behind a legacy of independence
WGBH president Henry Becton Jr., who presided over the growth of Boston’s public television station into a national production powerhouse, told the station’s staff yesterday that he will step down from his post in October.
Jonathan C. Abbott, WGBH’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, will take over as president.
The move comes at a time of change for WGBH, which is expanding its digital programming, struggling to attract corporate underwriting, and moving, next spring, to a vast new complex in Brighton.
It also comes at a challenging time for public television as a whole. The system has sometimes struggled to distinguish itself amid expanded cable TV offerings — and has experimented with funding ideas that some consider at odds with its noncommercial image. Just this week, PBS disclosed that it would partner with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to produce a PBS Blend of coffee.
But Becton, 63, who has led WGBH for more than 20 years, also leaves at a moment when the political landscape, for public television, is more stable than it has been in years. PBS’s new president, Paula Kerger, is a member-station veteran, considered an ally of Becton’s and Abbott’s. And while Republicans in Congress repeatedly threatened to pull PBS’s funding, this year’s Democratic takeover could put US Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden — a longtime defender of public television budgets — in charge of the subcommittee that oversees the system.
Under a Democratic Congress, Markey said in an interview yesterday, “PBS can expect much more help.”
But Kerger said yesterday that the system still struggles with a tight budget, and will have to explore new philanthropic and commercial partnerships. She said she has turned to Becton and Abbott already to help her navigate the new landscape.
On the PBS Web site, “we have no promotional messages on our kids’ space for example,” Kerger said. “Part of the way that we came to that decision was talking to people like Jon and Henry.”
Abbott, 44, was PBS’s senior vice president for development and corporate relations when he was recruited by Becton, eight years ago, to join WGBH. Yesterday, he said the station is in firm financial shape, and just raised more than $46 million in a capital campaign. Business executive David Mugar, a member of the board, just gave WGBH a $1 million endowment in Becton’s name.
In the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2005, WGBH ran a deficit of $18 million, with total revenue of $163 million. That year, Becton earned total compensation of $305,000, and Abbott earned total compensation of $268,000.
Still, Abbott acknowledged that attracting corporate funding — WGBH is currently seeking a sponsor for “NOVA” — has been increasingly difficult. He said he’ll work to convince corporations that audiences appreciate WGBH programming, and will remain committed to children’s programming and long-form documentary journalism.
And he said the station is devoting more resources to its Web sites and digital channels, which he said will expand the reach of its programs. Today, he said, the station has “a better chance at reaching the American people because we don’t have to live or die Monday night at 9.”
Becton will become vice chairman of the WGBH board in October, and remain as a part-time adviser.
Becton joined WGBH as a producer in 1970 and became the station’s president in 1984. During his tenure, WGBH grew from a regional player into the producer of some of the nation’s most iconic public television programs, including Julia Child’s The French Chef, This Old House, Frontline, Masterpiece Theatre, NOVA, American Experience,” and the children’s show Arthur. Today, WGBH produces a third of PBS’s content nationwide and, during a period of great expansion within the TV industry, has retained many of its longtime producers and executives.
“Ultimately, I want to be remembered for helping create an environment where greatly talented people could do their best work, and take the risks necessary to generate new programs and new services,” Becton said yesterday.
But some say Becton’s greatest legacy has been his independence, which has, at times, put him at odds with other powers within and around public television. In 1980, as WGBH’s vice president and general manager, he defended Death of a Princess, a Frontline documentary about a Saudi Arabian princess who was executed for adultery. The film prompted protests from the Saudi government and from Mobil Oil, a company that financed other PBS programs.
More recently, in January 2005, Becton stood behind an episode of the children’s show Postcards from Buster, which featured a lesbian couple. After US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings condemned the show, PBS ordered that it be pulled from the schedule. WGBH, under Becton’s direction, aired the show locally and made it available to stations across the country, many of which chose to run it.
“Ultimately, you stand up to the pressure and let the chips fall where they may,” Becton said. “I’ve managed to see that at the end of the day, we do all right with that.”
Becton also has been a power broker within the public broadcasting system. Markey said Becton was his key ally in the fight against PBS budget cuts and was instrumental in organizing public television stations across the country.
“He is arguably the most influential figure in public broadcasting of the last two decades,” said Amos Hostetter, the chairman of WGBH’s board of trustees.
His steadfastness has helped maintain WGBH’s reputation, even as some have complained that public television has lost its way.
“He’s been the kind of inside powerful godfather, helping direct the service,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C-based media advocacy group. “Under his leadership, WGBH has remained as the kind of role model for a PBS station.”
The Boston Globe rates these projects as “The Best of Becton.”
Julia Child’s cooking shows
Starting with “The French Chef,” WGBH brought French cooking to the masses and sparked a demand for cable cooking channels.
One of the most watched science television series in the world, premiered in March 1977, NOVA has offered critically acclaimed documentaries on everything from storm chasing to Fermat’s last theorem.
In 1979, Mystery! came into being with an unsoliticed offer from Herb Schmertz, head of corporate communications for Mobil Corporation: The oil giant wanted to fund a series on British mysteries.
WGBH was sold on the idea and soon, so were viewers: The series, by 1990, averaged five million viewers per week.
Masterpiece Theatre was created in 1971 to provide quality programming targeted at adults. The series, also funded by Mobil Corp., is the longest running prime-time drama series on television.
Damian Lewis appears in a 2002 presentation of “The Forsyte Saga.”
The television show ZOOM is put on by children performers doing skits, games, and science experiments suggested by viewers.
In this 2004 photo, cast members young and old gathered for a reunion.
That vase, stamp collection, comic book, quilt… is it trash, or is it treasure?
Now in its tenth year, Antiques Roadshow is the most watched PBS show.
WGBH’s new headquarters
Becton’s departure comes at a time of change for WGBH, which is expanding its digital programming, struggling to attract corporate underwriting, and moving, next spring, to a vast new complex in Brighton.