As New NBC O&O Goes Live, Boston Braces for Shakeup

Upending the Boston TV market, two new stations—an NBC O&O and a revamped version of its longtime (and soon to be former) affiliate—will light up Jan. 1, setting the stage for a showdown between network and local TV loyalists.

After losing a high-profile fight to keep his NBC affiliation, Sunbeam Television owner Ed Ansin is taking his station, WHDH, independent. The move includes significantly beefing up its local output in the news-heavy market—and hiring roughly 30 staffers to produce it.

A winner in local news with adults 25-54, WHDH is banking on the steadfast draw and familiarity of its local programming. In 2017, that slate will include a 9 p.m. newscast—the first in the market—a 10 p.m. newscast, and two additional hours in the morning to replace NBC’s Today show.

Ansin says he hopes changing viewer habits—i.e. the decline of appointment viewing and eroding live tune-in during primetime, late night and other blocks—will lessen the impact of losing network shows including 2016-17’s big breakout, This Is Us. WHDH also hopes to retain an edge by having a stronger over-the-air signal than the new NBC owned station, WBTS—although NBC Station execs already are on it with two transmitters and the purchase of a low-power TV station, which they say will improve reach.

“We’ve done it before and we are confident,” says Ansin, whose WSVN in Miami, now a Fox affiliate, underwent a similar metamorphosis when it lost its NBC affiliation roughly 30 years ago. “It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we have done far better since we left NBC than we did before.”

As an independent, WHDH could be in good company. Graham’s WJXT in Jacksonville, Fla., has thrived since losing its CBS affiliation, most recently outranking competitors on election night. In November sweeps, Tribune flagship WGN Chicago, which dropped its CW affiliation in May, rated No. 1 with adults 25-54 from 4 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The NBC Owned station group, however, is equally bullish on the prospects for its newest station, branded NBC Boston—and the benefits of having a stake in the lucrative Boston market, the ninth largest in the country.

Building on NBC’s existing infrastructure in Boston—NBC owns the market’s Telemundo station and the regional nonstop, New England Cable News—the company hired about 80 people, from air talent to promotions and sales reps, says general manager Mike St. Peter.

Among those new hires are Boston news personalities who have jumped ship to join the new station. Pete Bouchard left his job as WHDH chief meteorologist in December, 2015.  Phil Lipof, who was an anchor at Hearst-owned ABC affiliate WCVB, followed soon after.

WBTS will air a local lifestyle program, The Hub Daily, weekdays at 12:30. The news operation will be equipped with the NBC Stations’ hallmark offerings—access to the group’s mobile, radar-equipped StormRanger fleet, a chopper and weather chasers, and a consumer investigative unit to field (and hopefully rectify) viewers’ complaints.

The 6½ hours of live Boston New Year’s Eve celebrations WBTS plans to air Dec. 31 reflects the station’s commitment to local, St. Peter says. “Boston is a good NBC town,” St. Peter says. Having some of the market’s top-rated shows—Today, Nightly News and The Tonight Show—will make it a natural draw, he says.

Preston Padden, a media consultant and former top Disney and Fox executive, however, says switching things up in Boston is indicative of a problem bigger than a Boston-based squabble over who gets to carry NBC shows.

“The always difficult network-affiliate relationship has gotten too far out of balance,” he says. “What NBC is doing in Boston is wrong. Network efforts to seize control of retransmission are a dangerous, and perhaps illegal, overreach.”

Yet Padden credits Ansin and Bob Leider, Sunbeam’s executive VP and general manager, as “special broadcasters” whose “spectacular local news” will be a success in Boston regardless of their new-found status as an independent station.

Ansin is banking on him being right. “We are very excited,” Ansin says. “NBC [affiliation] is a better business plan. But being an independent is something we have confidence in and, if we have the same success we did in Miami, we will be happy we are not NBC anymore.”