NBCUniversal is set to launch a new local NBC TV station to serve Boston, a move that could have dire effects on the area’s current NBC affiliate, Sunbeam Television Corp.’s WHDH.
NBCCU will start its own station in Boston on January 1, 2017, according to a memo issued Thursday by Valari Staab, president, NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. The new outlet “will be a broadcast channel available to over-the-air viewers like our other NBC and Telemundo stations” she said, and NBC is “committed to expanding our over-the-air coverage of the market and are currently looking at a variety of options to accomplish that.”
The memo did not specify what station the new NBC outlet would broadcast from, but the decision likely spells the end of the company’s long relationship in the area with WHDH, supervised by Sunbeam leader Ed Ansin. The pair have had an intriguing relationship over the years. In 2009, he threatened to air local news at 10 p.m. rather than a five-nights-a-week primetime talk show featuring Jay Leno — a signal station owners around the nation were nervous about airing Leno every weeknight as a lead-in to their late-night newscasts, which help them snare a good portion of their annual advertising revenue.
In an interview Thursday evening, Ansin said NBCU executives informed him last year the company did not plan to renew its affiliate agreement with his station. Within days, he said, NBCU representatives offered him $200 million for WHDH broadcast facilities, a sum he turned down. He believes the station’s assets are worth around $450 million, particularly given the interest in broadcast-station air rights being used for wireless spectrum.
In her memo, Staab described the maneuver as one made to capitalize on a growing NBCU presence in the region. NBC already operates a Telemundo station, WNEU, that has facilities in Newton, Mass, and a transmitter in New Hampshire. Comcast also owns NECN, a regional-news cable outlet serving New England.
For his part, Ansin believes NBCU wants to establish its own Boston station in order to sell bigger and broader ad packages that include NECN and Telemundo. He also believes NBC intends to broadcast from WNEU, which he said reaches 121% fewer viewers in the Boston area, owing to its New Hampshire transmitter.
He intends to push back, saying Sunbeam intends to “contest” NBCU’s maneuver. He cited conditions Comcast Corp. agreed to with the U.S. government in exchange for being granted the ability to control NBCUniversal. Ansin suggested the move to establish a new Boston NBC station is in violation of agreements Comcast made that requires it to act in the interest of local communities.
Ansin believes he can prevail. “If they are not allowed to do what they want to do, they will have nowhere else to go in the market,” he said.
NBCU has already stocked up on programming to fill the new outlet’s air, said Staab. “We’ve already acquired Harry Connick, Jr.’s new daytime entertainment show, ‘Harry,’ to anchor NBC Boston’s daytime lineup, as well as the popular ‘Access Hollywood Live,’ which will air weekday afternoons, and ‘Access Hollywood’ to air in the evenings before NBC’s primetime programming. We so look forward to delivering Boston area viewers the best local news, weather and information along with the NBC news, sports, primetime and late night programming they already know and enjoy.”
Despite the rise of new technology that allows consumers to bypass TV stations entirely and stream their favorite programming via broadband, the outlets have maintained their appeal. Media companies know the stations help them market programming in specific parts of the nation, gain ad money from local marketers and reap retransmission revenue from cable and satellite distributors.
Several media companies have invested heavily in TV stations in recent years. In 2013, Gannett bought up TV stations owned by Belo Corp., while Tribune put into place a $2.7 billion acquisition of Local TV Holdings. Nexstar Broadcasting and Meredith Corp. are currently engaged in a battle to win control of Media General Inc., a Richmond, Virginia owner of TV stations.
NBC has a history of tough tactics when it comes to dealing with rebellious affiliates. In 1999, after Young Broadcasting outbid NBC to win San Francisco’s top-rated KRON, the company insisted that the station not be allowed to pre-empt the network except in rare instances and demanded millions each year in reverse compensation. Young Broadcasting opted not to renew its affiliation with NBC, and saw its ratings tumble.
Young Broadcasting subsequently fell upon tough times,falling into bankruptcy and eventually being acquired by Media General Inc. In 2015, KRON is an affiliate of MyNetwork TV, which is controlled by 21st Century Fox.