Three years after a bitter divorce with NBC, WHDH-TV (Channel 7) owner Ed Ansin is still standing.
That wasn’t a sure thing when Ansin began operating WHDH as an independent station on Jan. 1, 2017, with a prime time lineup consisting of “Family Feud” at 8 p.m., followed by local newscasts at 9 and 10 p.m.
Today, WHDH remains a fierce local news competitor. It’s not No. 1 among the major Boston stations — that distinction belongs to WCVB-TV (Channel 5) — but it is far from bouncing around in last place. That title goes to WBTS-TV (Channel 10), the station NBC launched after breaking up with Ansin. (NBC10 Boston insists its numbers are much improved of late.)
WHDH has been holding its own against WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and WFXT-TV (Channel 25), demonstrating how even without a network it can remain a consistent source of local news. None of this is by accident. Most owners would have cut back after losing a national affiliation, but not Ansin. He doubled down on local coverage and beefed up the WHDH newsroom. His latest big name hire: former Boston Herald editor-in-chief Joe Sciacca.
Ansin tells me that WHDH remains profitable, but he doesn’t want to stay independent forever.
“Most people didn’t think we could make this work,” he said in a recent interview at the WHDH station in Boston. “I thought we could make this work. It has worked. We’ve had a very successful station.”
Still, Ansin would prefer to have a partner. WHDH was an NBC affiliate for 22 years, giving it programming lead-ins like “The Today Show” and “The Voice.”
“My attitude has always been you have a first-class news operation, chances are somebody is going to want to affiliate with you, whether it’s Fox, Apple, or Amazon some day,” he said.
On that front, the maverick billionaire isn’t waiting for an invitation. In particular, Ansin wants to become the Fox affiliate in Boston and has let the network know that’s his desire. He’s not exactly making cold calls — Ansin also owns a Miami television station that has been the Fox affiliate in that city for three decades.
Boston Fox station WFXT’s ownership has been a revolving door in recent years. The latest change took place in December when Cox Enterprises sold its television and radio portfolio (which included WFXT) to private equity firm Apollo Global Management.
Ansin is high on Fox because of its sports deals with the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and FIFA. “Sports is a big part of the business today,” he explained.
Consider this stat that Ansin says Fox likes to tout: More than 80 percent of the highest-rated shows on television are sports. Indeed, in an age of streaming and on-demand programming, live sports is king. According to ratings firm Nielsen, eight of the top 10 television programs (single telecast) of 2019 were sports (all pro and college football).
Presidential election years also tend to be advertising bonanzas for local TV stations. Ansin said he expects 2020 to be “healthy,” but so far campaign spending is off. Typically, front-runners would have begun advertising ahead of the New Hampshire primary in February, but they have been holding back. Much to Ansin’s surprise, only billionaire candidates Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have been flooding the airwaves.
The other burning question in local media circles is how much longer Ansin will stay at the helm of Sunbeam Television, the parent company of WHDH and Boston sister station WLVI-TV (Channel 56), and WSVN-TV (Channel 7) in Miami.
It’s a reasonable question. Most people his age — Ansin’s 83 — are retired.
“Most people think I’m crazy not to retire,” Ansin said. “Tom Brady plays football until he’s 42, and that’s crazy too. I’m obsessed with television. I just like it.”
Ansin cofounded Sunbeam with his late father, Sidney, in the 1960s. In Miami and later in Boston, Ed Ansin pioneered a style of flashy graphics and breaking news format that has become a staple in the TV industry. Sunbeam remains a family business with two divisions — television and real estate.
There is a succession plan involving Ansin’s two sons, both of whom work at Sunbeam. Andrew Ansin, 56, will eventually head the company, and James Ansin, 53, will continue to be part of the senior management team. (Paul Magnes, the former WHDH and WLVI general manager who is now the general manager of Sunbeam Television, will continue to oversee the TV division.)
But don’t expect Ed Ansin to step aside for the next generation.
“I want to die with my boots on,” he said.
This could shape up to be another big year in local TV. NBC10 Boston, along with related media properties, will begin broadcasting from a new state-of-the-art building in Needham in January.
“We are extremely proud of our progress since our launch only three years ago,” said Mike St. Peter, president and general manager of NBC10 Boston, Telemundo Boston, and NECN, “and we prepare to significantly impact the landscape of this marketplace in 2020.”
As the saying goes, stay tuned.