When Bostonians turn to WHDH Channel 7 on Thursday night at 9 p.m., they won’t see the latest episode of “Chicago Med.” Instead, they’ll see the local news at 9. That will be followed by the local news at 10 and, uh, the local news at 11. If you tend to go to bed before then, you could always tune into the local news at 4:00, 4:30, 5:00, 5:30, 6:00, 6:30, or 7:00.
If this sounds like a lot of local news, that’s the point — and, WHDH is hoping, given the tough situation it’s found itself in, the draw. Until December 31, 2016, WHDH was Boston’s local NBC affiliate, the largest NBC station in the country that was not owned and operated by the network itself. A year ago, however, NBC decided to drop its affiliation with WHDH, the station owned by billionaire and Sunbeam Television cofounder Ed Ansin, which had been an NBC affiliate since 1995.
After losing a legal fight with NBC corporate parent Comcast, Ansin announced his new plan: He’d relaunch WHDH as an independent station in 2017, with 87 hours of local programming a week (and syndicated programming, like “Family Feud,” to fill the rest of the time). NBC, meanwhile, would relaunch as NBC Boston on a different channel.While this fight has played out in Boston, it could happen elsewhere in the country. Local TV is a major source of news for many Americans, and while viewership is declining, “it’s not the rough, sharp decline that you see, for example, in newspapers,” said Katerina Eva Matsa, a senior researcher at Pew. Political advertising has been a major ongoing source of revenue for local TV stations (about 85 percent of all political advertising goes to local TV), and that source of funds — combined with retransmission fees — makes the stations an attractive proposition for the same media companies that are shedding their local newspapers. (Donald Trump’s success spending less on TV ads and more on targeted digital ads could upend that in future election cycles, though.)
Ansin had been a source of irritation for NBC before — saying in 2009 WHDH wouldn’t air Jay Leno’s low-rated 10 p.m. program (then backing down) and a clash Ansin had with the network over another station he owned in the 1980s. NBC decided that owning and operating its Boston station was worth the hassles — wrangling with Ansin, finding a new (and weaker) broadcast signal, and retraining viewers about where to find NBC programming. (NBC is currently sharing signals across three different broadcast stations to try to achieve the broad market coverage WHDH had. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey is campaigning to ensure that residents can access NBC over the air; NBC is, of course, owned by Comcast, which is happy to incentivize a cable subscription.)
Meanwhile, the newly independent WHDH is filling its programming void by doubling down on local news. “Viewers are extremely interested in local news, especially if it’s well produced and includes important national news,” Ansin wrote in an emailed statement in response to questions for this story. The network’s bet on local included over 30 newsroom hires in January. The station sent two teams to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration, then covered the Women’s March in Boston the following day. “We were the only station that covered it from beginning to end,” said Paul Magnes, WHDH’s VP and general manager. “We got a ton of emails from viewers, acknowledging that we got out and were aggressive.” WHDH sent teams to Houston to cover the Super Bowl (not surprising since the Patriots were playing). “We’ll travel for major stories,” Magnes said.
WHDH is also hoping that the increasing usage of DVRs will enable its success. “On average, over 50 percent of a drama in primetime will be recorded and watched later,” said Magnes. “That doesn’t help a local broadcaster with a lead-in to 10:00 or 11:00 news. Our station is the most DVR-proof station in the market.” The gamble is, if people aren’t going to watch NBC’s primetime shows live anyway, who needs them?
The strategy of adding local news in non-traditional time slots — 4:00 a.m., 4:30 a.m., noon — has been successful in some markets. “These are the timeslots that are gaining viewership,” Matsa said. Pew has tracked Fox local affiliates over time; like the new WHDH, Fox affiliates don’t broadcast national news programming, with many instead running their own hour-long newscasts at 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. ET. This strategy seems to be working: The Fox morning newscasts have increased viewership by 16 percent since 2010, and the 10 p.m. newscasts have held steady. It’s not enough to compensate for the losses in the traditional timeslots, Matsa said, but “it shows there is some activity and some effort from the local TV stations to get new viewers.”
Still, in the first full month after the switch, the ratings of both NBC Boston and WHDH suffered. In the case of NBC Boston, “each of its local newscasts ranked dead last in its time slot for the month among the critical 25- to 54-year-old demographic prized by advertisers,” The Boston Globe noted. (“Some individual NBC Boston news broadcasts even registered a 0.0 rating on Nielsen’s scale.”)
As for WHDH, “substituting local news for the ‘Today’ show caused its ratings share for weekday mornings to drop from 1.7 to 0.8…the station’s average evening prime-time rating throughout the week dropped from 2.5 to 0.8. NBC Boston, with its popular NBC shows, managed a 1.9 share during the same hours.” (Ratings for both stations are likely to be higher in February, in part thanks to weather: two snowstorms, a mainstay of local TV news coverage, hit Boston in quick succession.) Still, WHDH’s 6 p.m. broadcast, previously No. 1 in the market, dropped only to No. 2.
Phil Balboni, who worked in local TV news for 33 years at Boston’s WCVB and NECN before founding GlobalPost in 2008 (he now runs Daily Chatter, an email newsletter), said he’s “stunned” by those low ratings. When he was news director of WCVB, from 1982 to 1990, the rating for the 6:00 news was around a 15 — over 300,000 TV-owning households.
And while it’s extremely unlikely that local TV will ever approach those levels again, Ansin’s renewed emphasis on local news is worth trying, Balboni believes. “Local television news can play a tremendously important role in a community,” he said. “That role is more important today than it used to be, because the resources of the local papers are so diminished.”