Don’t tune Ed Ansin out yet.
Yes, the owner of WHDH-TV (Channel 7) has given up on remaining an NBC affiliate, an admission he made on Tuesday. But the 80-year-old billionaire is gearing up for a new fight: He will relaunch Channel 7 next year as an independent station that will feature syndicated programming and expanded local news coverage, including a new 9 p.m. newscast.
Ansin had sued NBC’s parent company, Comcast Corp., alleging breach of contract and antitrust violations after the network decided not to renew Channel 7’s contract when it expires Dec. 31. Instead, NBC plans to start its own Boston TV station.
A federal judge dismissed the case in May. While Ansin filed a notice to appeal the ruling, he conceded in an interview that he does not see an outcome in which NBC stays on Channel 7.
These changes at WHDH and NBC represent the biggest shakeup in Boston television market in two decades.
“My first choice was staying with NBC,” Ansin said in an interview at WHDH headquarters in downtown Boston. “It’s fine.”
If Ansin sounded a bit wistful, it’s because his Sunbeam Television Corp. has had a relationship with NBC for half a century. WHDH itself has been an NBC affiliate since 1995. But networks like to own and operate stations in lucrative markets, and WHDH is the largest NBC affiliate not owned and operated by the network.
Going it alone means WHDH will no longer carry NBC programming, such as “The Voice” and “The Today Show.” Instead the station will air more episodes of “Family Feud” and then double down on news: in addition to the 9 p.m. newscast, there will be two additional hours of local morning news on the weekdays and a simulcast of a 10 p.m. newscast that already airs on WLVI-TV (Channel 56), which Ansin also owns.
All told, WHDH will expand to more than 87 hours of news each week in what it believes will be more than any other broadcast station in Boston.
Ansin is beefing up his news gathering operation with about 30 more hires, including reporters and producers. Currently, WHDH has a staff of about 300 full-time and part-time employees. Meanwhile, the stationwill also unveil what he calls a “dramatic” news set next month.
Ansin won’t say how much money he will be spending on the reboot but anticipates Channel 7will be profitable. It won’t be easy.
“Being an independent is very challenging,” Ansin acknowledged. “It is much more competitive. It takes more innovation.”
NBC has yet to announce where its new NBC Boston station will broadcast from and which channel it will appear on.
Meanwhile, Channel 7 will need to find its footing as an alternative outlet. Ansin is betting that changing viewer habits will work in his favor; with fewer people watching primetime TV live, stations don’t benefit as much from network programming as lead-ins to local newscasts.
“Network affiliation used to be a much bigger deal than it is now,” said Alan Schroeder, professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University.
Still, local television suffers from shrinking audiences as more people get their news and entertainment online, on cable, or from services such as Netflix. Ansin has a shot at a success because Channel 7 is already an established brand in Boston.
“If you were starting this from scratch,” said Schroeder, “it would absolutely make no sense.”
This is not the first time Ansin has decided to go it alone. A Miami station he owns was the NBC affiliate until the network bought another local station in the late 1980s and shifted its programming there.
Ansin’s station became an independent and then one of the early Fox affiliates. With a focus on flashy graphics and breaking news, Ansin made the station must-watch TV. He brought a similar formula to Boston when he acquired WHDH in 1993.
There is no doubt NBC Boston will be a fierce competitor and will probably roll out a big marketing campaign to promote the new channel. NBC Boston has been on a hiring spree and will share resources with New England Cable News, which is also owned by Comcast. The cable giant has been upgrading and expanding the NECN studio in Newton, where NBC Boston will be housed.
What viewers should hope is that more competition will mean an overall upgrade to our TV news — with more coverage and the introduction of new formats from all the stations in town.
Ask Ansin if he could have done anything different to keep NBC, and he insists there was nothing that would have changed the network’s mind. Last fall he had a chance to sell Channel 7 to NBC, but he balked at a lowball offer. The two sides, according to Ansin, were hundreds of millions of dollars apart. He still wouldn’t sell today, repeating a line on how he felt NBC was “trying to steal our station.”
It took him a while to get there, but Ansin is finally ready to move on. He finds himself up against a deep-pocketed media giant — and that’s OK.
“I’ve been competing with [NBC] for 30 years in Miami,” he said. “I don’t mind being the underdog.”