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Sunbeam's Ansin Still Walks the Walk

The local TV business is every bit an uphill climb these days, and Sunbeam Television owner Ed Ansin is preparing for the slog as best he can. Ansin recently returned from hiking the hills of Bar Harbor, Maine, with WSVN General Manager Robert Leider and others, and will do the same in Jackson Hole's Grand Tetons with his son Andy in late August.

Ansin, 73, builds endurance through power walking and calisthenics near his Miami Beach home. “He does the same exercises he used to do in gym class,” Leider says. “He doesn't belong to a gym.”

Ansin is definitely old-school, the product of an era when independent broadcasters could count their stations on one hand and made decisions based on their knowledge of the community, not because the guys at corporate said so. While he's known to many for his spat with NBC in which he said WHDH Boston would not air The Jay Leno Show come fall, Ansin insists he's hardly a rabble-rouser.

“I'm pretty mild-mannered,” the laconic owner says with a laugh. “But if I see something we have to stand up and contest, I don't mind doing it.”

Sunbeam's WSVN Miami and WHDH-WLVI Boston reflect Ansin's dual hometowns. His childhood was split between Massachusetts, where he was born, and Miami, where he was raised. He resides in South Florida and visits his Boston condo about once a month.

Following in father Sidney's footsteps, Ansin took over as executive VP of Sunbeam Television, which was solely then-NBC affiliate WSVN, in 1962. He's no stranger to affiliation switches: WSVN lost its NBC affiliation in 1989, then signed on with a young network called Fox. Sunbeam acquired WHDH, then a CBS affiliate, in 1993; it shifted to NBC programming two years later.

The stations have established their brands with lots of local news (WSVN's 10½ hours a day is among the highest in the country), a fierce independent streak (WHDH's two main anchors are female), and lively local programming built to appeal to young adults. Ansin says it's about a quick pace and “visually appealing” newscasts; the typical Sunbeam anchor is young and, most would agree, attractive. “The goal is not to be boring,” he says. “You need to keep up viewer interest.”

It seems to be working. According to BIA Financial, WHDH was in a virtual tie with WCVB for the Boston revenue lead in 2008, while WSVN comfortably beat all comers in Miami.

Unlike other media companies saddled with sagging newspapers and nagging Wall Street types, Ansin says Sunbeam has no debt and has been able to keep head counts consistent at the stations. (It helps when the owner is No. 321 on Forbes' list of wealthiest Americans, worth more than a billion.)

Leider calls Ansin a hands-on boss who's brimming with ideas to reinvigorate the station business. “He believes the stations that stay strong in local news are the ones that will prevail,” Leider says. “He's put his money where his mouth is.”

Just as the Sunbeam newscasts grab attention, Ansin has drawn his share of the spotlight of late. Besides the Leno snafu, he filed a lawsuit against Nielsen claiming that the company has a monopoly in the ratings world, and that its Local People Meters don't accurately reflect viewership. (Both parties are waiting on the judge to rule on Nielsen's motion to dismiss the suit.) Ansin won't say exactly why he warmed to Jay Leno, but says he supports the program. “We had some misgivings but we worked it out with NBC,” he says. “We're going to do the best we can to make it successful.”

As much as he's a committed broadcaster, Ansin is a real estate mogul with considerable holdings in South Florida and elsewhere. The father of three (James is the station manager at WSVN) and grandfather of four, Ansin unwinds from his careers through reading, exercise and watching sports—basketball, football, tennis—on TV.

Despite the perils of local television these days, Ansin won't be stepping down from the mountaintop anytime soon. “It's not as easy or as profitable a business as it once was,” he says, “but I just find broadcasting tremendously interesting.”