NBC said it will drop its affiliation with WHDH-TV (Channel 7) and launch a new network-owned station in Boston in January 2017, the biggest shake-up in the local television market in two decades.
In a memo to employees on Thursday, the network said the new station, dubbed NBC Boston, would carry the NBC programs now seen on Channel 7 as well as new syndicated shows. The station will have a local news team, adding to the expansion that has already taken place at New England Cable News and Spanish-language station Telemundo Boston, which like NBC are owned by Comcast Corp.
The memo did not say which channel would carry the new NBC station.
The change would be the biggest local channel switch since WHDH and WBZ swapped affiliations in 1995, with NBC going to Channel 7 and CBS to Channel 4. The plan was announced just days before the Federal Communications Commission deadline for TV stations to participate in an auction that could further alter the Boston media landscape.
WHDH owner Ed Ansin, who told the Globe last month that NBC was planning the move, said he will not go quietly and has assembled a legal team to challenge the network’s decision. The media mogul said the network has told him that it may move its programming to WNEU-TV, a New Hampshire station that NBC owns and currently broadcasts Telemundo on Channel 60. WNEU would broadcast NBC Boston and Telemundo from the same transmitter, Ansin said.
“We are going to contest it,” the 79-year-old billionaire said in an interview at Channel 7’s office in Boston. “I have a feeling a year from now we will still be the NBC affiliate. That’s how serious we think the violations are.”
Among Ansin’s concerns are whether it is in the public interest for NBC to move its programming to a station that reaches half as many people as WHDH’s signal. Comcast took control of NBC about five years ago, but not without caveats from the FCC. Ansin said that under the FCC agreement, Comcast and NBC committed to maintaining a certain level of free over-the-air broadcasting.
Ansin also is exploring whether Comcast would become too dominant in the Greater Boston market. Comcast provides cable to many homes, and through NBC also owns NECN, Comcast SportsNet New England, and Telemundo.
An FCC spokesman declined to comment.
Ansin, who has a long history with NBC, also met with Senator Edward Markey on Thursday to discuss whether Comcast’s move would violate any FCC rules.
“As a longtime supporter of universal service and free, over-the-air local broadcasting, Senator Markey intends to closely scrutinize the impacts any deal could have on viewers in Massachusetts,” Giselle Barry, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh also weighed in, quoted in a Channel 7 press release Thursday night saying: “One of my concerns is that it’s unclear of what the future of NBC will be in the city of Boston.”
NBC officials would not elaborate on why they ended their agreement with Ansin. NBC Boston will be available to over-the-air viewers, not just to cable subscribers, as some observers had speculated.
Anticipating concerns about the range of the new station, the memo said network executives were “expanding our over-the-air coverage of the market and are currently looking at a variety of options to accomplish that.” Another scenario is for NBC to try to buy another local station.
Networks prefer to own and operate their own stations in major markets because it is more profitable. Ansin has said that NBC told him in September that the network would not renew its agreement and offered $200 million to buy a portion of WHDH. Ansin balked at the figure, saying it was too low. An NBC spokeswoman said the network was only interested in buying a part of WHDH’s signal and did not offer him that much money.
Daniel Lyons, a professor at Boston College Law School who studies telecommunications issues, said Ansin’s chances of blocking the move depend on the details of the agreement between him and NBC.
“This is primarily a contractual dispute, and the resolution will turn largely upon the terms of the affiliation agreement between NBC and WHDH,” said Lyons. “It’s worth fighting for.”
Ansin and NBC have famously sparred through the years. The Ansin family has been in the television business since it bought WSVN-TV, the NBC affiliate in Miami, more than a half century ago. But in the late 1980s, NBC acquired a rival station in Miami and moved programming there, which forced Ansin’s station to become a Fox affiliate.
In 2009, Ansin defied the network’s orders to air Jay Leno’s new prime-time talk show. After a weeklong standoff, Ansin relented, though NBC ended up pulling the comedian’s show less than a year later due to low ratings.
Asked if he could have done anything to change NBC’s mind about dropping his affiliation, Ansin was emphatic.
“No,” he said. “They made up their mind that they wanted to own a station in Boston. That’s what it all comes down to.”
If Ansin loses his battle with NBC, he said he would operate Channel 7 as an independent station with a focus on news. He said he would even add staff to support more newscasts. The Channel 7 newsroom currently has about 200 employees, many of them working part time. Ansin went through a similar experience in Miami and ended up building a powerful new station, relying on breaking news and flashy graphics.
“It was the best thing that could have ever happened to that station,” said Ansin. “News people like a challenge.”
More changes in the local TV market could be in motion. Ansin, whose Sunbeam Television also owns WLVI-TV (Channel 56), said he wants to sell the station in the FCC’s spectrum auction. The FCC wants to buy local TV signals from stations willing to go dark and has valued WLVI as high as $452 million. Ansin bought the station for $113.7 million in 2006.
Ansin, who expects other owners of local TV stations to also participate in the auction, said he plans to broadcast Channel 56 from the WHDH transmitter.
NBC has already been upgrading and expanding its studio in Newton, where NBC Boston will set up alongside NECN and Telemundo. On Thursday the network named Mike St. Peter, the general manager of NECN and Telemundo Boston, to lead NBC Boston. St. Peter will serve as president, overseeing all three channels.
The network also announced new on-air personalities who will join NECN and are expected to appear on NBC Boston when it launches: Pete Bouchard, who previously was WHDH’s chief meteorologist; Melody Mendez, previously a morning anchor in Chicago, who will come on board as a weekday morning anchor; and Joy Lim Nakrin, who worked as an anchor-reporter on WFXT-TV in Boston and will become an afternoon anchor and evening reporter.
St. Peter said he plans to hire dozens of other staff, including reporters and producers, for NBC Boston. Still, St. Peter said viewers can expect a “blended workforce,” meaning reporters who appear on NECN may also be seen on NBC Boston.
“It’s a very competitive market. We’re going to put the best news product on the air we can,” he said. “We have a good running start.”