The station debuted on March 27, 1955, known as WPRO-TV (for PROvidence). It was Rhode Island's third television station and was owned and operated by retailer Cherry & Webb, along with WPRO radio (630 AM and 92.3 FM). WPRO-TV was originally supposed to go on the air in 1953, but the station ran into several delays. It originally planned to build a transmitter in Rehoboth, but legal disputes with town officials forced Cherry & Webb to find a site in Johnston, Rhode Island.
The station then planned to sign on in 1954, but Hurricane Carol destroyed the Johnston transmitter. The legal disputes in Rehoboth were finally settled in late 1954, and WPRO got the go-ahead to begin construction there. The channel was due to join CBS because of WPRO radio's long affiliation with CBS Radio. Even when it became apparent that WPRO-TV would miss its target air date, CBS opted to continue its secondary affiliation with NBC station WJAR-TV (channel 10) rather than move its programming to ABC affiliate WNET-TV (now the present-day WNAC).
When WPRO-TV finally came on the air, ABC gave it right of first refusal for its more popular shows. Within less than a year, WNET had gone dark. This station continued to share ABC with WJAR until WTEV-TV (channel 6, now WLNE-TV) signed-on in 1963.
Channel 12's studios were originally located on the top floor of 24 Mason Street in Downtown Providence with its radio sisters. The three stations' news facilities were completely integrated. On-air personalities from radio and TV created newscasts together. In fact, some reporters recorded conservative-sounding FM news broadcasts prior to pulling a switch to deliver live, punchy "colorful color radio PRO" on-air news for the AM station on the hour, with headlines on the half-hour. And some radio news reporters headed into the field with photographers to cover stories simultaneously for radio and TV.
Legendary Providence radio personality Salty Brine had a daily children's show on WPRO-TV. News personalities included Mort Blender and Walter Cryan while the beloved Hank Bouchard did a multitude of on-air duties. That included announcing, hosting programs, and giving the weather report. Cherry & Webb sold WPRO-AM-FM-TV to Albany, New York-based Capital Cities Television Corporation, predecessor of Capital Cities Communications, in 1959.
WPRO-TV was then sold to Poole Broadcasting (owners of WJRT-TV in Flint, Michigan) on June 16, 1967; that sale was necessary because CapCities' purchase of KTRK-TV in Houston left it one VHF station over the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ownership limit of the time. Poole Broadcasting then changed WPRO-TV's call letters to the present WPRI-TV. It wanted to trade on the well-known WPRO calls and also realized that "PRI" could stand for Providence, Rhode Island. Capital Cities retained ownership of the WPRO radio stations until 1993 with the last seven being ABC-owned stations airing ABC Radio. However, the three stations continued to share the Mason Street studio until 1974, when they moved to separate facilities in East Providence. Poole retained ownership of channel 12 until 1977 when it sold its three television stations (WPRI, WJRT, and WTEN in Albany, New York) to Knight Ridder Broadcasting. WPRI swapped affiliations with WTEV and became an ABC affiliate on June 27, 1977, after this sale as a result of a corporate affiliation deal between ABC and Knight Ridder (WTEN, then a CBS station, would switch to ABC several months later).
In 1989, Knight-Ridder left the broadcasting business selling WPRI and WTKR in Norfolk, Virginia to Narragansett Television LP, a locally based firm. Narragansett Television sold WPRI to CBS in early 1995, making it a network owned-and-operated station (and one of the last such acquisitions prior to the Westinghouse Electric Corporation's purchase of the network). At midnight on September 10, 1995, WPRI reversed the 1977 swap with WLNE and officially rejoined CBS. It aired a vigorous promotion called "Survive the Switch" so television viewers in Providence would be prepared for this changeover.
In August 1995, Westinghouse bought CBS for approximately $6 billion. The merger was finalized that November 24. Westinghouse already owned WBZ-TV in Boston, which had joined CBS back in January of that year. WPRI's city-grade signal, like most of the other major Rhode Island stations, decently covers most of the Boston area. Meanwhile, WBZ-TV provides city-grade coverage to Providence itself, as well as New Bedford and Fall River, and at least grade B coverage to the rest of Rhode Island. At the time, the FCC normally did not allow common ownership of multiple stations with overlapping coverage areas and would not even consider granting a waiver if the overlap was between city-grade signals.
As a result, CBS opted to keep WBZ-TV and sell WPRI to Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia) on July 1, 1996, after less than ten months of ownership. Just months after the sale was announced, the FCC eliminated the requirement of a waiver for common ownership of television stations in adjacent markets with substantial grade B signal overlap. It began to permit common ownership of stations whose city-grade signals overlap when duopolies began to be permitted in 2000.
LIN TV era (2000–2014)
In 2000, Clear Channel was forced to sell WPRI as a condition of being allowed to buy additional radio stations in the Providence market. Sunrise Television acquired WPRI in early 2001 for $50 million. Sunrise merged with LIN TV in May 2002.
On May 18, 2007, LIN TV announced that it was exploring strategic alternatives that could have resulted in the sale of the company. In October 2008, WPRI and sister station WALA-TV in Mobile, Alabama relaunched websites through News Corporation's Fox Interactive Media (since spun off as the independent company known as EndPlay, which in turn was acquired by the Nexstar Broadcasting Group in 2014 and merged with its two other CMS providers, Inergize Digital and Internet Broadcasting to form a new CMS unit, Lakana) as a result of a new partnership between LIN TV and NewsCorp. The other LIN TV-owned stations (irrespective of network affiliations) followed suit within two months ending the company's long partnership with WorldNow. The new sites were in a format which is similar to those of the Fox O&O-style web addresses used by many Fox affiliates (and which the LIN TV-owned or controlled Fox affiliates such as WNAC-TV had used) except the flashy myFox look. The myFox sites themselves were eventually redesigned to a look similar to those of the LIN TV sites. After Nexstar's acquisition of EndPlay was completed, the LIN station Web sites switched to the WordPress.com VIP CMS platform, which most of the Web sites of the television stations Media General acquired since the announced merger with Young Broadcasting have since adopted.
LMA with WNAC-TV (1997–present)
Shortly after Clear Channel took over the station, WPRI entered in a local marketing agreement (LMA) with Fox affiliate WNAC (then owned by Argyle Television). WPRI took over the station's operations on September 28, 1997 when WNAC moved its operations into this station's facilities. WNAC operates under the license of the old WNET-TV, which was forced off-the-air in 1956 largely due to the presence of WPRI. In late 1997, Argyle merged with Hearst Broadcasting, owner of ABC affiliate WCVB-TV in Boston. Hearst was forced to trade WNAC together with WDTN in Dayton, Ohio (which had to be sold to alleviate an overlap conflict with WLWT in Cincinnati) to Sunrise Television in return for WPTZ in Plattsburgh, New York, WNNE in Hartford, Vermont, and KSBW in Salinas, California because of the FCC rule forbidding common ownership of two stations with overlapping city-grade signals (the same rule that forced CBS to sell WPRI two years earlier).
When Sunrise bought WPRI from Clear Channel in early 2001, WNAC was sold to LIN TV due to FCC regulations forbidding common ownership of two of the four highest-rated stations in the same market. In this case, WNAC cannot be co-owned directly with WPRI. However, LIN TV was forced to put WNAC back on the market almost as soon as it closed on the station's purchase due to the ownership structures of Sunrise and LIN TV. Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst (now HM Capital Partners), a private-equity firm co-founded by Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars then-owner Tom Hicks, was majority owner of LIN TV. At the same time, HMTF also controlled a large block of Sunrise stock. The FCC ruled that HMTF controlled enough Sunrise stock that the company could not own any stations in markets where LIN TV owned a station as well.
Finally in April 2002, LIN TV sold WNAC to Super Towers, Inc. (d/b/a WNAC, LLC), a company owned by Timothy Sheehan, brother-in-law of former LIN TV Vice President Paul Karpowicz. This sale allowed the merger between Sunrise and LIN TV to be completed the following month. LIN TV continues to operate WNAC today under the same LMA that it inherited from Sunrise.
WPRI-TV received Federal Communications Commission (FCC) consent to discontinue regular programming on its analog signal, over VHF channel 12, on February 17, 2009, the original date in which full-power television stations in the United States were to transition from analog to digital broadcasts under federal mandate (which was later pushed back to June 12, 2009). The station's digital signal remained on its pre-transition VHF channel 13, using PSIP to display the station's virtual channel as its former VHF analog channel 12. WNAC-TV also discontinued regular analog service on February 17, 2009 and began operation of its new digital facility on channel 12. WPRI is also one of the only remaining TV stations in America to sign-off and sign-on once a week to this day.
Merger with Media General, then Nexstar (2014–present)
On March 21, 2014, LIN Media entered into an agreement to merge with Media General in a $1.6 billion deal. Because Media General already owns NBC affiliate WJAR and the two stations rank as the two highest-rated stations in the Providence market in total day viewership, the companies were required to sell either WJAR or WPRI-TV to another station owner in order to comply with FCC ownership rules as well as planned changes to those rules regarding same-market television stations which would prohibit sharing agreements; the LMA involving WNAC will be included in the sale. On August 20, 2014, Media General announced that it would keep WPRI and the LMA with WNAC and sell WJAR to Sinclair Broadcast Group, even though WJAR has higher ratings. The merger was completed on December 19.
On January 27, 2016, Nexstar Broadcasting Group announced plans to merge with Media General. The merger was completed on January 17, 2017.