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NEWTON — The week between Christmas and New Year’s can be among the slowest of the year for news. Not here at NBC Boston.
Workers are still putting the finishing touches on the new station’s studio, as anchors, reporters, and producers conduct what news director Kenny Plotnik describes as “real-time rehearsals.”
These are newscasts, complete with live remote shots, that are produced to work out the kinks of a new set and team as NBC prepares to part ways with longtime affiliate WHDH-TV (Channel 7) on Sunday.
“It’s all hands on deck,” said Plotnik, as he gave a tour of the NBC studio. “It’s an incredible vibe.”
The debut of a new NBC station will mark the biggest shakeup in the Boston television market in two decades. Networks can make more money if they own and operate their stations, which explains why NBC — a unit of cable giant Comcast — did not renew WHDH’s affiliate agreement beyond this year.
This will mean big changes for viewers. Channel 7, which is owned by billionaire Ed Ansin, will become an independent news station that will also show syndicated programs like “Family Feud” and “Celebrity Name Game.” NBC programming — including “The Today Show,” “The Voice,” and “Sunday Night Football” — will move to the new station.
Where you can find NBC Boston is a bit complicated. That’s because the network did not buy a full-power station, so viewers without cable or satellite may need a cheat sheet to figure out where they can watch their favorite NBC shows.
NBC’s plan involves sharing signals with three stations: New Hampshire’s WNEU, which is also owned by Comcast and broadcasts Spanish-language Telemundo; Boston station WMFP, which airs a network owned by televangelist Jimmy Swaggart; and low-power Boston station WBTS.
That means over-the-air viewers, depending on where they live, will need to tune into channels 8.1, 60.2, or 60.5. (For cable customers, NBC Boston will be carried in high definition by Comcast on channels 810 or 710, by Verizon’s channel 516, and by DirecTV and Dish on channel 10.)
To ensure a smooth transition, Mike St. Peter, president of NBC Boston, said the network has spent a “significant” amount of money on marketing, from billboards to Facebook, and the effort will continue after Sunday. The station has also set up a call center with a toll-free number (1-855-NBC-BOSTON) to handle questions.
“We want to make sure people have plenty of opportunities to find the station,” said St. Peter.
NBC has been gearing up for its launch by hiring dozens of workers, leasing a helicopter, and renovating studio and office space. The new station will be housed in Newton, sharing space with Comcast properties New England Cable News and Telemundo.
The three news operations will also share talent and equipment such as the helicopter and new high tech weather trucks. Viewers can expect to see some reporters and anchors appear on all three stations, which will be managed by St. Peter and Plotnik.
NBC Boston is taking over studio space that once belonged to NECN and Telemundo. The space has been upgraded to include LED flat panel screens and a new weather desk. The network has also set up an ultra high definition or “4K” camera that offers a live background shot of the Boston skyline.
Meanwhile, NECN and Telemundo teams now broadcast from a new studio carved out of the same building.
Much is at stake for both NBC and WHDH. Boston is among the biggest television markets in the country, and WHDH has been among the strongest local affiliates.
Ansin, WHDH’s longtime owner, isn’t going away quietly. He has also been on a hiring spree and upgraded WHDH’s studio because he is planning to replace NBC programming primarily with more local news, including a new 9 p.m. newscast. Ansin is counting on viewer confusion that will keep people tuned into Channel 7.
For NBC, the gamble comes in the form of taking a successful franchise and starting over. Typically, local ratings from major affiliates help set advertising rates for the network, and it may take a while for NBC Boston to build an audience.
That reality is not lost on St. Peter or Plotnik.
“It’s a habit, and it takes time to change habits,” Plotnik explained about watching TV. “We have to prove ourselves. That’s our plan.”
So there could be all-around ratings pains for both NBC and WHDH.
The question is for how long?
NBC can ride it out thanks to Comcast’s deep pockets, and long term the network will be better off financially, assuming the station finds its footing.
Ansin now becomes the underdog, but he has done this before in the Miami television market. He’s hoping he can strike ratings gold again.
For Boston viewers, we’ll just have to watch and see what happens. Or maybe become Netflix converts.