By SCOTT FYBUSH
These are extraordinary times in the world of local TV, and nowhere more so than in Boston. Over the last few weeks (including a NERW Extra last week that broke the news that NBC was officially planning to cut ties with longtime affiliate WHDH), we’ve touched on bits and pieces of the very complicated relationship between NBC and WHDH. In today’s NERW Extra, we offer some background on how we got here – and, for subscribers, we dive deep into some well-informed speculation about what the next chapters in this story will look like and where you’ll see “Superstore” in Stoneham and Swampscott next January.
1948: TV comes to Boston, NBC is settled (for perhaps the last time!) When TV screens began lighting up around the country in the late 1940s, NBC was by far the dominant player. In most markets with just one or two stations, NBC quickly linked up with the first station in town, often drawing on 20-plus years of affiliation with dominant radio stations to get the connection to their new TV sisters. So it was in Boston, where Westinghouse’s WBZ (1030) was the NBC radio outlet and its new WBZ-TV (Channel 4) almost automatically signed on as the NBC-TV affiliate. So far, so good…
1956: Westinghouse feels its independence. Before there was “Group W,” there was “WBC,” the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company’s branding in the late 1950s, when it began to try to pull away from its network ties. After NBC forced Westinghouse to swap its lucrative Philadelphia TV and radio signals for NBC’s smaller TV and radio operation in Cleveland, WBC started to form a quasi-fourth network, establishing its own news bureaus, dropping radio network affiliations at WBZ and other stations, and increasingly pre-empting network TV offerings for its own local programming. (Westinghouse also went to court against NBC and eventually, in 1965, won its Philadelphia stations back.)
1960: NBC makes its first move on channel 7. Long before Ed Ansin and WHDH, NBC wanted to own its own Boston station – and 55 years ago, it almost got one. NBC worked out a deal to swap its Washington stations, WRC radio and TV, to RKO in exchange for RKO’s Boston stations, WNAC radio and TV. WNAC-TV (Channel 7) was then a CBS affiliate, and it’s likely WBZ-TV would have gone to CBS had this deal been consummated. But NBC’s earlier Westinghouse issue was being litigated at the time, which put a big obstacle in the path of FCC approval of the swap. Both sides eventually gave up on the swap, NBC kept Washington (and still owns WRC-TV to this day), and in Boston NBC stayed put on WBZ-TV, pre-emptions and all, for 35 more years.
1987: NBC makes a Miami move. Meanwhile in Miami, NBC spent 30 years struggling with another difficult affiliate, WSVN (Channel 7), owned by Ed Ansin’s Sunbeam Television. When the FCC raised the ownership limits for TV markets in the mid-1980s, NBC jumped at the chance to buy its own Miami signal, and in 1987 it acquired CBS affiliate WTVJ (Channel 4). NBC tried to pull its affiliation away from Ansin right away, but Ansin’s legal challenges forced NBC to run WTVJ as a CBS affiliate until it could finally get its own affiliation at the start of 1989. At that point, Ansin flipped WSVN to Fox, filling former NBC network hours with a huge amount of local news in a new, flashy tabloid style.
1995: Ansin and NBC, unhappy together again. When Westinghouse partnered up with CBS in 1994 to buy more TV stations together, part of the very complex deal involved flipping Westinghouse’s non-CBS affiliates (including WBZ-TV) to CBS. (Later in the year, the partnership turned into an outright purchase of CBS by Westinghouse, which then renamed itself “CBS.”)
In Boston, the deal left NBC looking for a new affiliation to replace WBZ-TV after 47 years together, with just a few months to figure out where to go. The obvious answer was also, in some ways, the least desirable: just a few years earlier, Ansin had purchased Boston’s existing CBS affiliate, WHDH-TV (Channel 7), from supermarket mogul David Mugar. While Ansin’s WHDH-TV was getting a ratings boost from the same sort of tabloid news WSVN was doing in Miami, an NBC affiliation with “7 News” meant once again dealing with Ansin and his adversarial relationship to his networks. (As a CBS affiliate, WHDH carried its own local morning newscast instead of CBS’ morning news, for instance.)
But with WBZ going to CBS and Hearst’s WCVB closely tied to ABC, the remaining options were even less attractive. Fox affiliate WFXT (Channel 25) didn’t have a local news operation at the time (and was soon sold to Fox itself, after Fox turned down the chance to affiliate with WHDH). There was no local news at independents WSBK (Channel 38) or WABU (Channel 68), either. Tribune-owned indie WLVI (Channel 56) was also ruled out – and so NBC ended up back with Ansin on WHDH.
2002: NBC buys in the market. Without much fanfare, NBC used a right-of-first-refusal clause to pick up WPXB (Channel 60) up in New Hampshire from Lowell Paxson, paying $26 million and turning the station into Telemundo affiliate WNEU.
2009: Leno? No thanks. After a relatively placid period between Ansin and NBC, tempers flared when NBC announced its plans to replace the 10 PM entertainment hour on weekdays with a new prime-time Jay Leno show. Ansin quickly declared WHDH wouldn’t run Leno at 10 and would put its own local news there instead. NBC made noises about pulling its affiliation from WHDH, starting the first rumors about an NBC move to WNEU. But Ansin backed down after a few tense days, agreeing to carry the Leno show in order to keep the NBC affiliation until the end of its contract at the end of 2016.
2013: NBC absorbs NECN. With Comcast’s purchase of NBC, local and regional Comcast-owned services became part of the NBC family. That included Comcast-owned New England Cable News, which fell under the NBC Owned Television Stations umbrella, giving NBC another piece of the puzzle – the local news backbone it would need to launch its own station in Boston. Rumors of the new “NBC Boston” began swirling in early 2015, picked up steam as some key faces began departing other stations in town without announcing new gigs, and then burst out last week when NBC made the official announcement that it will part ways with Ansin and WHDH when their contract expires at the end of 2016.
So that’s how we got where we are – but with the plans for the new “NBC Boston” still somewhat vague, what happens next? That’s where we go now, for the subscriber-only part of this NERW Extra…