Television

From the archives | Aug. 3, 1994

Boston’s TV shuffle will put NBC on Channel 7

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Aug. 3, 1994, editions of The Boston Globe.

WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) yesterday said it will become an NBC-affiliated station, ending the greatest cliffhanger in local broadcast history.

In the 2.1 million television households from Cape Cod to the Rhode Island border to central New Hampshire that watch WHDH and current NBC affiliate WBZ (Ch. 4), a swap of decades-old station identities will result. Sometime between the end of this month and January 1995, Channel 7’s current CBS programs will start appearing on Channel 4 and Channel 4’s NBC programs will start showing up on 7.

The scenario announced yesterday was the latest in a series of television station defections and reaffiliations engineered by the nation’s four big networks in recent weeks. But Boston’s station swap will affect viewers here more straightforwardly than recent reaffiliation deals elsewhere.

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Seinfeld and Jay Leno will trade channels with David Letterman and Dan and Connie. There is also the possibility that New England Patriots football games will begin the season on Channel 4 and end it on Channel 7. Even so, “in the end, we’ll have the least interruption in viewing habits this way,” said Rosemary Bell, an executive vice president of Needham-based Pro Media, which buys commercial time.

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On July 14, CBS began the local round of broadcast musical chairs, announcing it would leave Channel 7 for Channel 4. The move was the result of a long-term affiliation deal the network had struck with Group W Television, which owns Channel 4. But NBC, suddenly facing homelessness in the nation’s sixth-largest television market, was no shoo-in to move to Channel 7.

The Fox network -- which airs its programs locally on WFXT (Ch. 25) -- also wanted WHDH as an affiliate, as part of a national strategy to become competitive with CBS, ABC and NBC. WHDH was more attractive than WFXT because, as a higher-powered VHF station (numbered below 14 on the broadcast dial), it has a signal that reaches more viewers who don’t have cable.

But after more than two weeks of negotiations, Fox didn’t offer WHDH enough.

“Both NBC and Fox were very good opportunities for us for very different reasons, but ultimately we decided NBC was a better fit for what we’re trying to do, particularly in news,” said Edmund Ansin, president of Sunbeam Television Corp., Channel 7’s owner. “And it’s a better fit for Boston.”

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Exactly when the marriage will take place remains unknown. At a press conference yesterday, Mike Carson, WHDH general manager, said yesterday, “the sooner the better.” However, not only WHDH and NBC, but CBS and Group W as well must agree on the date.

And yesterday, Group W insisted it had agreed to nothing yet. The same economics that make an immediate switch so attractive to Ansin — namely, getting in a full season of Patriots games — might make a delay attractive to the current owners of the NBC affiliate.

“We would prefer a switch in January,” said a source close to Group W who asked not to be named. “It is not incumbent on us to switch immediately.” The source, who said Group W had learned of the NBC-WHDH deal only yesterday morning, added, “We will make a decision based on the interest of our viewers, WBZ, and of our new partners at CBS. We’ll be looking at it over the course of this coming week, and we’ll announce our decision when we make it.” Group W has the legal right to retain WBZ as an NBC affiliate for six months.

Neil Braun, president of the NBC Television Network, wouldn’t comment on the timing issue except to say, “There is no second choice. You have to switch at the beginning of the season or at the end of the season.” All sides said they’ll discuss the timing issue over the next few days.

Why did Ansin strike a deal with NBC instead of Fox? Largely, it was for the very reason many observers had expected him to ally with Fox — because of the money he could make from newscasts. The Miami-based Sunbeam, which also owns a Fox affiliate in that city, bought WHDH for $215 million a year ago and immediately began an aggressive expansion of the station’s news operation (replacing the venerable “CBS This Morning” with a 5-to-9-a.m. local newscast, for example). Expanding newscasts meant more profits for WHDH

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because the station could keep revenues from commercials sold during those programs, instead of splitting network-show revenues with CBS. Fox, because it has no morning news show and no programming between 10 and 11 p.m., would have allowed WHDH to continue that strategy — in contrast to NBC, whose “Today” show is the cornerstone of its daytime schedule. Thus, the fact that Fox is not quite a full-service network was thought to be an advantage in Ansin’s eyes.

“What Fox afforded us was an opportunity to do an hourlong 10 o’clock news and four hours of news in the morning,” Ansin said. “However, we basically felt that NBC’s news operation would in the long run be more beneficial.”

In fact, WHDH will air “Today” live, scrapping the second half of its own morning newscast, and making up for it by expanding the noon news to an hour from the current half-hour, and by filling the 3-4 p.m. hour with a non-news program yet to be determined. WHDH will also design news programs to complement Saturday and Sunday editions of “Today,” Ansin said.

NBC’s three “Dateline” newsmagazines a week complement WHDH’s own news operations well, Ansin added. So does NBC News Channel, the network’s Charlotte, N.C.-based news service that supplies affiliates with reporters to cover national stories.

And NBC offers other programming advantages that Fox, day in and day out, couldn’t match. Just as “Today” and “NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw” perform especially well in Boston, so does the network’s evening lineup. Around here, “The Tonight Show,” starring Andover native Jay Leno, consistently beats CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” — an anomaly nationally.

And above all, NBC’s sports coverage -- including games from the AFC, which includes the home-team Patriots, as well as professional basketball and the 1996 Summer Olympics — overwhelmed Fox’s NFC football schedule.

Although Channel 7 is switching network affiliations and not ownership, lots of money is involved. Ansin and NBC wouldn’t disclose figures, but affiliate compensation — the “rent” that a network pays a station to run its programs — was a contributing factor in picking NBC, Ansin said. Industry observers who asked not to be named speculated that Fox couldn’t afford to outcompensate NBC and other networks in similar local skirmishes after having spent nearly $1.6 billion to capture NFC football from CBS last fall, and $500 million more in May to strike an affiliation deal that set off the chain reaction of swaps that ultimately hit Boston last month.