In this week’s issue… Where will the Peacock land in Boston? – Maine AMs change owners, formats – CBS cuts hit in PA – Oedipus home for the holidays
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*If you’re in the sprawling Boston TV market a year or so from now and you’re looking for Jimmy Fallon, Sunday Night Football, the Today Show or anything else on NBC, where will you tune? Twenty years after the Peacock moved to Sunbeam’s WHDH-TV (Channel 7), the always-tense relationship between the network and its eastern MASSACHUSETTS affiliate is hanging by a thread as the current contract ticks down to its expiration at the end of 2016.
Even before NBC was sold to Comcast, it was no secret that the network had been looking for alternatives to WHDH in the market – and that those alternatives could include the launch of what would amount to an all-new station in the market. NBC owns WNEU (Channel 60) up in New Hampshire, which currently carries Telemundo programming and reaches nearly all of the market on cable and satellite. The sale to Comcast brought more resources into the fold in the form of Comcast-owned New England Cable News and Comcast Sports Network New England.
To that, this week’s news adds another potential piece of talent that a new “NBC Boston” could tap: Pete Bouchard resigned as WHDH chief meteorologist, fueling rumors that he could be following the NBC affiliation to a new home alongside anchor Maria Stephanos, who’s been silent about her future after being ousted from Fox affiliate WFXT (Channel 25).
With the caveat that it’s all in the realm of rumor right now, let’s try to break down some of the many moving parts that play into the decision-making at both Sunbeam and NBC/Comcast:
Spring is in the air? You wouldn’t know it from going outside, at least not here in NERWland.
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NBC’s long history with Ed Ansin. Long before WHDH even became an NBC affiliate, Sunbeam owner Ed Ansin tangled with the network at his flagship station, WSVN in Miami. Ansin’s 1988 decision to drop NBC and go with Fox at WSVN was a blow that NBC management didn’t forget easily; when NBC lost its Boston affiliation with WBZ-TV in 1994, it considered several other options before affiliating with WHDH. The relationship has been prickly ever since, especially when WHDH rebelled against carrying Jay Leno’s 10 PM show in 2009. Boston is the largest market in which NBC doesn’t own its outlet, which has been a point of contention for the network going all the way back to its failed 1960 attempt to buy channel 7, then WNAC-TV.
The long arm(s) of Comcast. One of the traditional pitfalls for a new entrant in a big market has been the attempt to get full cable and satellite carriage at a desirable dial position. When NBC was absorbed into Comcast, that particular concern largely vanished. A hypothetical “NBC Boston” based on the WNEU license would have a friendly relationship with the cable company that serves most of the region – but if that relationship gets too friendly, would it draw unwelcome attention from the Justice Department? And the use of WNEU would still force NBC to do some negotiating with competing providers such as Verizon FiOS, RCN, DirecTV and Dish to get a desirable channel position on those services. (One thing we can say with certainty: NBC can’t take over the “channel 7” slot on cable from WHDH; Ansin is guaranteed the right to that slot, even on Comcast.)
The long memories of a stubborn market. At WHDH, it took Ansin many years and millions of dollars to make channel 7 a top-rated player in a landscape where WBZ and WCVB had long dominated. That’s a lesson NBC knows well, having invested its own millions to make KNTV (Channel 11) a player in the San Francisco market after pulling its affiliation from its longtime home at KRON (Channel 4). Even if it can put together star players such as Stephanos and Bouchard, could NBC make a dent with a new local news product in a crowded market, at a time when the relevance of local TV news is arguably on the decline? It’s a gamble at best.
What would WHDH look like after NBC? Ansin has already demonstrated a recipe for surviving without a strong network tie – at WSVN, the Fox affiliation was initially just an afterthought in a broadcast day filled with wall-to-wall local news. If NBC does cut ties with WHDH, it’s not hard to imagine “7 News” expanding into morning and 10 PM slots now filled with network programming. Beyond that, would Ansin move programming from the resurgent CW network over to WHDH from his second Boston signal, WLVI (Channel 56)?
Cord-cutters and broadcast signals. Even in a market with heavy cable penetration, “NBC Boston” on WNEU would start with a significant disadvantage – the New Hampshire-based signal simply doesn’t make it to antenna-using viewers in the core of the Boston market. Is NBC ready to bid farewell to perhaps as much as 20% of the market’s TV homes – the equivalent of going dark entirely in a market the size of Springfield or Fargo? Improving the WNEU signal becomes more of a challenge against the backdrop of a bigger change in over-the-air broadcasting, the spectrum auction and repack that will get underway early next year. Will NBC want to take that risk?
Ansin’s future. As he approaches his 80th birthday next year, does Ed Ansin have the stomach for a risky fight of his own? Might he finally be ready to sell WHDH to NBC? Or are we looking here at what’s essentially a giant game of chicken – and will both sides end up deciding they’re still better off with each other than apart? (Watch the timing here, too – NBC’s big 2016 event is the Rio Olympics in August, and the rumor mill suggests that if there is going to be a new “NBC Boston,” the network would pay to get out of its WHDH contract a few months early and launch its new station amidst the hoopla of the Olympic Games.)
*Here’s a combination we’d never have imagined in our MASSACHUSETTS days 20 years ago – legendary rock jock Oedipus doing a Christmas Eve show on…WGBH? The veteran WBCN programmer is indeed bringing “Christmas Eve with Oedipus” to the public radio outlet at 89.7, where management has been aggressively tapping commercial broadcasting veterans in an attempt to draw new listeners. Calling WGBH “such an innovative radio station,” Oedipus says he’ll be playing his holiday tunes from 6 PM until midnight on Christmas Eve.
Oedipus isn’t the only prominent WBCN alumnus making a Boston appearance for the holidays. Charles Laquidara will be back in Boston from his Hawaii retirement for a Wednesday screening of “I Am What I Play,” Roger King’s documentary about Laquidara and three other legendary rock DJs. King will also be on hand for the screening, which takes place at the Regent Theatre in Arlington starting at 6:30.
*On the North Shore, Costa-Eagle tells the FCC it’s losing the transmitter site for WMVX (1570 Beverly), which has operated for a decade and a half from a rocky patch of land on Endicott College property. WMVX is applying to change its city of license to Methuen and to relocate to the tower of sister station WNNW (800 Lawrence). From that site in Andover, 1570 would continue to crank out 50,000 watts non-directionally by day, dropping to 460 watts at night. Even with all that power, the high dial position means the 50 kW signal wouldn’t go very far, mainly covering the Merrimack Valley and losing the coastal coverage that WMVX now enjoys from the Endicott College site.
*In Amherst, WMUA (91.1) has been in the headlines for most of the year as community programmers have battled with UMass students over the focus of the station, a fight that got extra attention after several longtime community hosts lost their airshifts in April. It’s a conflict that flares up from time to time at college stations, where student interest and leadership sometimes waxes and wanes as they come and go, leaving room for some community programmers to establish themselves for many years and even decades.
At WMUA, the university is siding with the students: on Tuesday, it announced that community programmers will now be limited to no more than 24 hours out of the WMUA broadcast week, using student activity funds to replace whatever donations are lost from supporters of the cancelled community shows. UMass also plans to hire a full-time station manager for WMUA.
The sale first: Bill Binnie has never shown much interest in AM, and so perhaps the only surprise in Binnie Media’s sale of WLVP (870 Gorham) and WLAM (1470 Lewiston) is that it took as long as it did. Binnie got the pair of AMs as part of his purchase of Nassau Broadcasting, but it was no big secret that the real prize was Nassau’s FMs, including top-rated WFNK (107.5) and WTHT (99.9). So who does want AM in Maine? Bob Bittner has become the go-to buyer for AMs that need some love, and now his Blue Jey group is paying Binnie just $135,000 for WLVP and WLAM, which will join his Maine flagship WJTO (730 Bath, plus a 98.3 translator) and WJYE (1280 Gardiner). It’s a remarkably low price, especially considering what Binnie spent just this year to demolish the old WLAM studio in Lewiston and renovate the facility into a smaller transmitter-only building.
Bittner tells NERW that he’ll develop a new music format for 870 and 1470, “something old” that won’t duplicate the AC/standards mix that he runs in Bath on “Memories” WJTO.
Meanwhile at Saga’s Portland Radio Group, it’s a demotion for the mix of second- and third-tier syndicated talk that’s been running on WZAN (970 Portland). Saga is pulling the plug on the Westwood One AC format that’s been on WBAE (1490 Portland) and starting a simulcast between 970 and 1490; after the new year, 1490 will become the new home of the WZAN lineup – Don Imus, Laura Ingraham, Dave Ramsey, Sean Hannity – while 970 will become a full-time ESPN Radio relay.
*A NEW HAMPSHIRE AM station is changing hands in the Lakes Region, where Winnipesaukee Network Inc. is selling WASR (1420 Wolfeboro) to John Kenney’s Winnipesaukee Radio Station LLC. Kenney’s group is paying $150,000 for the station.
There’s a new LPFM getting ready to hit the air in Bedford: WBNH-LP (101.5), licensed to the town of Bedford, is building out its transmitter site in front of the Bedford Community TV studios. When it hits the air in January, it will program a mix of local information (especially emergency alerts), sports and other hyper-local fare. Harry Kozlowski, who recently sold classical WCNH (91.5) to New Hampshire Public Radio, is on board as station manager.
Speaking of NHPR, it has a new director of engineering. Rick Zach, fresh off his hard work building out Bill Binnie’s new Concord broadcast center, has joined the statewide public radio network. Zach is perhaps best known in the region for his many years at the engineering helm of Boston’s WCVB (Channel 5).
*It’s not at all unusual for big broadcast companies to make cutbacks at this time of year, and most of the headlines about CBS Radio’s changes on Friday revolved (rightly so) around the sudden end of its attempt at all-news radio in the Washington, DC market at WNEW (99.1). Just like an earlier WNEW in New York City (now WBBR 1130), Washington’s WNEW has become a Bloomberg Radio outlet with only minimal local presence, leaving a staff of very talented reporters, anchors, writers and editors out of work. (Among them is Bill Rehkopf, who left CBS’ KDKA in Pittsburgh twice, first to take the morning anchor job at WNEW in 2012 and then again to take afternoons just this past January.)
But this round of CBS job cuts hit at both ends of PENNSYLVANIA, too. In Philadelphia, Andy Bloom lost his job as operations manager at WIP (94.1) and WPHT (1210). He’d been with WIP and the former WYSP since 2007. In Pittsburgh, WDSY (107.9) continues to lose veteran staffers; this time, morning host Brian Montgomery. “Monty” had been a Y108 morning voice for 22 years, surviving the cuts last year that claimed the job of his co-host Jimmy Roach. Next door at WBZZ (Star 100.7), Mike Flick is gone as APD/MD and afternoon co-host, leaving Kelly Langenohl solo on afternoons.
And we send deep condolences to Ray Thomas at Carlisle’s WIOO/WEEO and WHYL on the death Sunday of his wife, Gayle Uilkema-Thomas. She’d been suffering from heart disease for much of her life, but Thomas says it had been under control recently. A memorial service is scheduled for Dec. 29.
*Phil Pepe is being remembered mainly for his long career as a NEW YORK sportswriter, first at the old World-Telegram and Sun and then for the Daily News, but he was also an important part of WCBS-FM (101.1), where he was morning sports anchor from 1986 until 2001. Pepe also called New Jersey Cardinals baseball on the radio until 2005. He died December 13 at his New Jersey home, at age 80.
Nexstar has named a new news director at WSYR-TV (Channel 9) in Syracuse, and it’s a well-known local veteran. Jim Campagna has been at channel 9 for more than 20 years, and was part of the WHEN (620) news team before that. He’d been serving as co-interim news director with Sabrina Betts since the station’s last news director, Phil Rankin, exited.
In Jamestown, Bible Broadcasting Network translator W203BV (88.5) has been displaced by the power boost just across the Pennsylvania state line at WYVL (88.5 Youngsville); it’s now applying for a new home up the dial at 91.9, where it would continue to carry BBN programming from South Carolina via satellite.
On the west shore of Lake Champlain, Chip Morgan’s WMUD-LP in Moriah has a new spot on the dial. Displaced from 89.3 when VERMONT Public Radio got 89.1 for a full-power signal in Middlebury, WMUD-LP is now back on the air at 107.3 on the dial, where it’s relaying Catholic radio for the moment.
*And that’s a wrap on the last regular NERW report for 2015! But never fear – we’ll be here through the holidays with updates on our Facebook and Twitter feeds (and here, too, if it’s big enough). And our big 2015 Year in Review package starts in this space on Monday morning, Dec. 28. We’ll return with our next scheduled NERW issue on Monday, January 4, 2016. In the meantime, Lisa and I thank all of you for your continued support and wish you the happiest of holidays and a wonderful new year!
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