In this week’s issue… Death of a local TV maverick – NY studio on the move – Two sports talkers in the news as MLB returns – Country flip in Altoona – Bellavia gets BEN slot
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*When the history of Boston TV is written, it just may be divided into two eras: before and after the arrival of Ed Ansin, the Florida TV maverick and Worcester native who died Sunday at 84.
For its first 45 years, the Boston TV market was a fairly staid affair: the competition between channels 4, 5 and 7 was fierce, but gentlemanly, and the newscasts that came on the air at 6 and 11 all followed much the same model. Even the shakeups that put channel 5 in the hands of a new licensee in 1972, and channel 7 in 1982, didn’t lead to massive changes in the high-minded newscasts that the new owners kept putting out. Herald-Traveler, BBI, Metromedia and Hearst at channel 5, RKO General and David Mugar at channel 7, Westinghouse at channel 4 – all were cut from more or less the same traditional TV cloth.
But in 1993, channel 7 (by then WHDH-TV) was sold again, and this time everything changed. Ed Ansin’s Sunbeam TV blew in from Miami, where Ansin had already made a name for himself by staring down NBC over an affiliation renewal at his flagship station, WSVN (also channel 7). WSVN ended up with Fox, making a name for itself with a flashy, visually distinctive news format heavy on crime and celebrities.
Ansin imported WSVN’s news director, Joel Cheatwood, to Boston to create something unlike anything the market had ever seen. The new “7 News” that debuted in November 1993 was mild by Miami standards, but it was completely new to New England. The critics pounced, the viewers came anyway, and within a few years WHDH had won ratings parity with channels 4 and 5 for the first time in decades. It was more than that, though: within a few more years, the other newscasts in town came to look much more like Ansin’s model.
Ansin’s Boston tenure was also soon marked by network conflicts. His new “7 News” model called for more hours of local news daily, which meant preempting the network’s morning offering at what was then a CBS affiliate. (The low-rated “CBS This Morning” was pawned off to independent WABU-TV beginning in early 1994.)
A Westinghouse/CBS joint venture announced later in 1994 soon turned into Westinghouse’s outright purchase of CBS, which moved that affiliation to WBZ-TV and put Ansin back in partnership with his old Miami nemesis, NBC. WHDH-TV’s switch to NBC at the start of 1995 brought Ansin the strong ratings of the #1 network – there was, after all, a good reason he picked NBC over the chance to become the Fox affiliate in Boston – but it also touched off more than two decades of turbulence. Ansin fought NBC over its 2009 plan to strip Jay Leno across five nights of 10 PM primetime real estate, threatening to preempt Leno in his hometown market and run a local 10 PM newscast instead.
NBC won that round, responding with its own threat to move its affiliation elsewhere. For once, Ansin backed down, keeping his 10 PM newscast in place on WLVI (Channel 56), the CW affiliate he bought from Tribune in 2006.
Ansin’s relationship with NBC stayed strained, and by the end of 2015 it had collapsed completely. Ansin spurned what was reported to have been a $200 million offer from NBC to buy WHDH-TV, claiming the station was worth as much as $500 million. NBC called his bluff early in 2016, ending months of rumors by announcing its plans to pull the affiliation at year’s end, creating its own new owned-and-operated station with a news operation constructed around New England Cable News, the cable channel it had inherited as part of Comcast.
While suing NBC (the suit was eventually dismissed), Ansin reportedly toyed with picking up the Fox affiliation he’d rejected back in 1994. Instead, he once again took a gamble by choosing to take WHDH independent. 2017 dawned with “7 News” as one of the most news-heavy stations in the country, churning out fast-paced wheels of news all morning, again in middays, and then almost nonstop from late afternoon until 11:30. The ratings sagged somewhat, though less than many expected, and by all accounts the station stayed solidly profitable.
In the meantime, Ansin executed one more shrewd move. After paying Tribune $117 million for WLVI in 2006, Ansin made that once-vibrant independent into a shadow of WHDH, closing its separate newsroom, simulcasting some of WHDH’s newscasts on “CW56” and moving the whole operation into WHDH’s Government Center offices. Was it worth it? As it turns out, very much so: the FCC repack auction allowed Ansin to sell WLVI’s valuable UHF spectrum for a whopping $162 million in a move that was completely transparent to viewers, since WLVI’s 56.1 and 56.2 channels simply moved to share WHDH’s spectrum. (Ansin even saved on the rent WLVI had been paying for its tower space in Needham, since WHDH owned its own tower down the street in Newton.)
With a net worth estimated to be well over a billion dollars, Ansin was still riding high at the start of 2020. Likely the last independent owner of big-market TV stations, he told the Globe he was still having fun running his stations and had every intention of “dying with my boots on.”
That’s what he did on Sunday, leaving behind a TV landscape that had changed in almost every imaginable way during the long career that began when he and his father founded Sunbeam with the purchase of Miami’s channel 7 in 1962. Ansin will be remembered, and rightly so, as perhaps the most influential individual station owner in Boston TV history. And while he told the Globe in January that he had a succession plan for Sunbeam involving his two sons and Sunbeam GM Paul Magnes, the first morning of the post-Ansin era will inevitable dawn with talk of who might be making offers to buy Sunbeam’s stations.
Do we have some thoughts on that topic? We do indeed; read on in our subscriber-only section for our exclusive insight.
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