Making His Cable News Dream Come True

In a 30-year-plus career in local news, Phil Balboni moved from print to broadcast and later helped create a medium that combines both of those with cable. His New England Cable News includes partner stations in all New England markets, several of New England's newspapers and its own staff, which includes New England television news icons Chet Curtis and Tom Ellis, Balboni said.

There were only one or two local cable news channels in the country during the mid-1980s when Balboni, then news director at WCVB-TV Boston, first thought the idea might work in New England. He nurtured the idea through his time in Hearst's corporate office, and helped launch the channel, owned by Hearst and Comcast in 1992.

"We thought at first we could use a lot of our WCVB programming," Balboni recalled. "It turned out that what our cable partners wanted was mostly original programming. Over time we learned that you've got to create original news and original value in order to get cable carriage. And without that carriage, you're nothing. Distribution is our lifeblood."

Back then, there were many more cable entities to deal with and he had to travel from town to town pitching the channel. Even today, NECN deals not only with the five major cable companies, but also several smaller cable companies across six states.

According to Balboni, with the exception of the full year recession of 2001, the cable channel has been in the black since 1998. It's won Peabody and DuPont Awards and recently added the Radio-Television News Directors Association's prestigious national Edward R. Murrow award—the only cable network to win a Murrow this year, he noted.

Longtime Boston anchor Curtis, who, as a WCVB-TV anchor and now NECN host, goes back more than 25 years marvels that Balboni "started this place. He's nurtured it, supported it, and made it successful. And news guys don't always make good business guys."

And, Curtis said, Balboni remains a newsman. "Phil is very hands-on. Hardly a week goes by he doesn't make some comment on the program I do—and it's not always flattering. He's always around with suggestions about topics or guests."

Balboni's future wasn't always as clear. When he came home from Vietnam in 1966, where he was an officer in Army Intelligence, he was anxious to get on with the rest of his life, but uncertain where to start. In France, where he had enrolled at the Sorbonne, he gave some thought to international relations. He also considered journalism.

At the Benjamin Franklin Library in Paris, Balboni went through an old Editor & Publisher yearbook and sent off 30 letters of inquiry to American newspapers, which produced a few responses and an offer from the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Miss. When he returned to the states, Balboni dropped in on two of the other newspapers that had indicated interest and ended up as a general assignment reporter on the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Balboni's first job in television was researching editorials for WCVB-TV. He joined the storied station shortly after the infamous and protracted battle over the FCC's revocation of the Herald-Traveler's license to operate the station and the transfer to locally-owned Boston Broadcasters.

The station's editorial board chairman was well-known Harvard historian Oscar Handlin, whom Balboni remembered as "brilliant and irascible." He likens the meetings determining the station's editorial policy to those of a great debating society and he laments their lost practice in local television. "Working at WCVB was like starting at the top," Balboni said, "although it took years before we realized how special it was."