Robert Bennett, Pioneering Local Television Executive, Dies at 89

Courtesy Digney & Co.
Robert Bennett

In the 1980s, he spearheaded the launch of WCVB-TV in Boston and headed Metromedia Broadcasting, at the time the nation's largest station group.

Robert Bennett, the pioneering television executive who became the first general manager of WCVB-TV in Boston and then president of Metromedia Broadcasting, has died. He was 89.

Bennett died Tuesday at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif., a spokesperson for WCVB announced.

In 1972, the FCC awarded a television license to a new group of operators in Boston, and Bennett was selected to lead the group at WCVB. It went on to produce more than 60 hours of locally produced programming at a time when most stations were simply doing local newscasts and the occasional documentary.

Among WCVB's notable original productions were the 1981 ABC telefilm Summer Solstice, set in New England and starring Henry Fonda and Myrna Loy; the Norman Lear sitcom The Baxters, developed for national syndication; another sitcom, Park Street Under, from which Paramount Television and NBC reportedly developed Cheers; and more than 200 national and international award-winning documentaries, dramas and magazine/talk shows.

Under Bennett's leadership, WCVB received a Peabody Award and was recognized by The New York Times as "probably America's best television station."

WCVB was sold to Metromedia for a record price of $220 million in 1981, and Bennett became head of the company's station group — then the largest in the nation — working with legendary media tycoon John Kluge.

In 1985, he helped spin off WCVB to the Hearst Corp. for $450 million, another record-high price. The remaining Metromedia stations would form the core of the Fox Broadcasting Network.

"Bob was beloved by all, with an infectious personality and unparalleled leadership ability," Bill Fine, WCVB president and GM, said in a statement. "In launching WCVB in 1972, Bob's vision was one of a truly local television station, a blueprint that has been dutifully followed for 45 years. He was a genuine broadcasting pioneer and legend, respected equally by his staff and competitors. His impact on local broadcasting, nationwide, is his legacy."

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Altoona, Pa., Bennett began his career in 1948 as a page at CBS Radio in Hollywood. In 1952, he became a salesman at KTTV-TV in Los Angeles, then served from 1958-66 as vice president and director of sales at the station. Rising through the ranks of Metromedia's broadcast division, he then headed WTTG-TV in Washington and WNEW-TV New York.

In 1985, Bennett was the recipient of the President's Award from the National Association of Television Program Executives, one of the industry's highest honors.

Bennett lived in Newport Beach for the past 31 years. Survivors include his wife of 66 years, Marjie; daughter Kelly; son Casey; and grandson Brandon.