NBC promises Leno will air in Boston
Is Boston’s WHDH having second thoughts about dumping Jay Leno for a 10 p.m. newscast?A day after the NBC affiliate sparked a firestorm by announcing plans to preempt the Peacock’s primetime Leno strip, WHDH owner Sunbeam Television went silent Friday, refusing to comment on its plans. Calls to Miami-based Sunbeam TV topper Ed Ansin went unreturned — and a story that had run on WHDH’s website announcing the 10 p.m. newscast vanished Friday. (WHDH’s Facebook and Twitter accounts also made no mention whatsoever of the Leno snub — despite the national headlines it spawned.) There’s a good possibility that Sunbeam became aware it had overplayed its hand, perhaps not realizing that its announcement would garner national attention. More importantly, Sunbeam was perhaps unprepared for NBC’s swift and decisive response to WHDH’s newscast announcement. Peacock execs didn’t beat around the bush on Thursday: If WHDH pursues those plans, its NBC affiliation will be immediately stripped, they said. NBC TV Network prexy John Eck, who didn’t mince words Thursday, followed up Friday with a second statement, this time directed at Boston viewers: “Jay Leno fans will not be disappointed,” he said. “Make no mistake: The new Leno show will air at 10 p.m. weeknights in the Boston market on NBC.” WHDH is in the middle of a multiyear deal with the network; according to the New York Times, it’s one of the few Peacock affils that still receives financial compensation, once a norm in network/station relations, from the Peacock. The networks have phased out compensation through the years — and in some cases, now even demand reverse compensation from affils. NBC would appear to have the leverage in this standoff, as the Peacock has several options in Boston — including its own Telemundo outlet, WNEU. Although WNEU doesn’t cover all of Boston — it’s actually licensed to a town in nearby New Hampshire — it does have full cable coverage in the Boston market. Network insiders believe they could strike a deal with Comcast to improve WNEU’s channel position on local cable systems; and the digital transition lessens the difference between the highly coveted VHF and UHF channel positions. NBC could also trigger an affiliation merry-go-round in the market by making a play for Hearst-Argyle’s ABC affil, WCVB; or it could strike a deal with CBS to purchase the Eye’s independent in the market, onetime superstation WSBK. The Peacock said Friday that it had received inquiries from several stations in the market about acquiring the NBC affiliation. WBPX (Channel 68), currently owned by ION, has shown network aspirations in the past — having aired preempted network fare in the 1980s. Another small UHF in the market, ValueVision-owned WWDP, airs home-shopping programming from ShopNBC, which is 30% owned by the Peacock). Dumping WHDH for a smaller station without a news presence comes with some risk. CBS, for example, has struggled in Detroit for more than a decade after losing its longtime home in 1994 as part of the New World Communications flip to Fox. The Eye bought a tiny religious station and turned it into CBS O&O WWJ — but failed to launch a news department, and even today lacks much of a presence in the market. On the flip side, the ratings and revenue collapse of San Francisco’s once-mighty KRON would serve as a cautionary tale to WHDH. After new KRON owner Young Broadcasting refused to pay reverse compensation to NBC, the Peacock found a willing affiliate in Granite’s KNTV. (NBC later bought KNTV when Granite couldn’t make the payments.) Without NBC, KRON has suffered — and now makes do with a MyNetworkTV affiliation. One winner in all of this could be the CW, which Sunbeam would presumably move off its other Boston station, WLVI (Channel 56), and onto the more powerful WHDH if it lost the NBC affiliation. Since CW programs only two hours a night, there’d be no issue with airing a 10 p.m. newscast. But WHDH would see its revenues decline greatly in other dayparts, as it would no longer air the “Today” show or NBC’s latenight stable. And it would also miss out on a big ratings and dollars payday from the upcoming Winter Olympics. NBC insiders are still surprised by Sunbeam’s brazen move; even if the company wanted to preempt Leno for a 10 p.m. newscast, that wouldn’t happen until September — so why announce those intentions so early? Was it an attempt to persuade other affiliates to join the movement? Ansin is already seen as a bit of an iconoclast in the station world. In Miami, Sunbeam’s WSVN was once upon a time an NBC affiliate — but, by the mid-1980s, was preempting enough Peacock fare that the network grew alarmed and started looking at other options in the market. NBC eventually bought another station, WTVJ, which was then affiliated with CBS. Ansin refused to give up the NBC affiliation until his contract ran out and then joined up with the then-fledgling Fox network. Sunbeam took advantage of Fox’s shorter, two-hour primetime sked and built up WSVN’s news presence, including a 10 p.m. telecast. That powered WSVN to strong ratings — even as the station was criticized in journalism circles. It’s WSVN’s success that is probably fueling Ansin’s desire to replicate the 10 p.m. format in Boston. Ansin may also believe that the 10 p.m. newscast his company now produces for its Boston CW outfit WLVI, which is trounced by Fox’s WFXT, might be more competitive if placed on WHDH. Ansin may have also figured that NBC would back down and find another station to clear Leno in Boston. Although it’s rare for affils to regularly preempt primetime fare, it’s been more common through the years in other dayparts. In Salt Lake City, NBC affil KSL — which is owned by the Mormon Church — doesn’t run “Saturday Night Live.” While there isn’t much sympathy for NBC in Hollywood, where the decision to move Leno into primetime still isn’t popular (given that it’s filling timeslots once occupied by scripted series), Bostonians appear to be upset over the WHDH announcement. Comments on the Boston Globe website, where news of WHDH’s plans first surfaced Thursday, were running mostly in favor of hometown hero Leno — and against the WHDH plans.