After being in a relationship with NBC for half a century, Ed Ansin isn’t ready to let go.
The owner of WHDH-TV (Channel 7) went to court on Thursday, not to end his marriage with the network but to try to save it.
While Ansin continues to profess his love for NBC programming, gone are any niceties about working with network executives to renew his station affiliation.
“They deliberately deceived us,” Ansin told me in an interview at Channel 7’s station in downtown Boston. “They lied to us. That’s why we’re suing them.”
The 80-year-old billionaire has been threatening court action since NBC said in January that it would pull programming from WHDH and move it to a new station, NBC Boston, starting in 2017. WHDH has been affiliate for 22 years, but Ansin’s ties to the network stretch back to the 1960s, when his family bought an NBC station in Miami. Ansin still owns that station, but it now carries Fox.
WHDH filed a 68-page complaint against NBC’s owner, Comcast Corp., in US District Court in Boston, alleging that its plan to drop Channel 7 is a breach of contract and that the cable giant is in violation of Massachusetts and federal antitrust laws. Ansin’s station is seeking an injunction to stop the move, as well as unspecified damages.
WHDH in its filing asserts that Comcast intends to have the new station share a signal with WNEU-TV, a New Hampshire station that NBC owns and currently broadcasts Telemundo Boston on Channel 60. NBCUniversal, a division of Comcast that oversees NBC, called the lawsuit “meritless.”
Ansin’s suit contends that the New Hampshire transmitter reaches less than half of the 7.1 million viewers that can get Channel 7 in the Boston market. Such a move would mean many viewers would lose free over-the-air access to NBC programming, forcing them to get cable or satellite TV. WHDH believes that this would violate the agreement Comcast struck with the Federal Communications Commission in winning approval to take over NBC in 2011.
In an interview, Ansin said the FCC order was put in place to protect not only the public interest but also local stations.
“The affiliates, by and large, supported the merger but with misgivings,” Ansin said. “It’s exactly the sort of the problem that we’re having here. They are downgrading the network for the benefit of Comcast cable.”
The suit also reveals how WHDH felt spurned, with executives making ovetures over the past several years to renew the contract for another decade, only to be rebuffed by the cable giant.
“Comcast ultimately refused to negotiate with WHDH at all,” according to the suit. “Instead, while it was promising WHDH it would negotiate, Comcast secretly developed and thereafter announced a plan to replace WHDH as its NBC Boston affiliate with a completely new station to be owned and operated by Comcast.”
WHDH claims that Comcast began laying the groundwork for a breakup in 2013, when the company merged its cable and broadcast divisions in Boston and brought its regional cable news station, New England Cable News, under NBC. Starting that summer, WHDH began to hear that NECN sales representatives were telling advertisers that the cable station would become the local NBC affiliate in Boston starting in 2017.
When confronted with these claims, Comcast assured WHDH that the rumors were untrue and that cable company intended to negotiate another affiliation agreement.
Eager to strike a deal, Ansin told me he presented a proposal to NBC in 2014 to reup early. To sweeten the pot, Ansin even offered to forgo receiving close to $11 million that NBC would owe WHDH under the last two years of its existing contract.
The response? “No, we’re not ready to talk,” Ansin was told.
On Sept. 11, 2015, NBC officials were ready to talk, only to say that the network is splitting up with WHDH, according to the filing. A few days later, Valari Staab, president of the NBC-Owned Television Station division, offered to buy WHDH broadcast facilities for $200 million, far below the market value of more than $500 million as an NBC affiliate.
“Ms. Staab acknowledged that the price offered reflected WHDH’s diminished value resulting from Comcast terminating its affiliation,” according to the suit.
WHDH said no, but Comcast still needed a broadcast signal for its new station, so it proposed an arrangement in which NBC Boston would pay WHDH $75 million to share its transmitter, according to the suit.
WHDH also refused that offer, believing Comcast was in violation of its affliation agreement and doing such a deal would give the cable giant too much market clout. According to the filing, Comcast serves nearly 85 percent of all cable subscribers in the Boston market through its various services and programming networks.
Talk to legal experts, and they’ll tell you the FCC should probably be all over this case. Comcast seems to be flexing its monopolistic muscles in a way that could hurt a local affiliate and its viewers. But it’s an open question whether Comcast’s actions violate federal antitrust statutes or constitute unfair practices under state law.
So what’s Ansin’s endgame? Without NBC, the eccentric TV owner will need to become an independent station, which means attracting advertisers and making money will be that much harder. Ansin is still saying he would keep the station and the staff, and commit to doing more news.
Clearly, NBC would like to own and operate a station in Boston. Would Ansin sell to the peacock network if the price were right?
“They don’t want to buy our station. They want to steal our broadcast facility,” Ansin said. “Our preference is to continue to be the NBC affiliate.”
They say love is blind, and that’s certainly the case between this billionaire and NBC.Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.