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Oct. 15, 2009, noon

Is NBC preparing to compete with its affiliates? Evidence from Boston

The web has disrupted the way news organizations think about geography and concepts like “national” and “local.” National newspapers like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are planning local editions in the Bay Area and elsewhere, where online competition has weakened local newspapers. National brands like ESPN and the Huffington Post are launching dedicated websites in some of the country’s biggest markets. The Associated Press is considering withholding some of its material from local members and instead building a centralized AP site for them to link to.

Now there’s evidence that a national TV network may be headed in the same geography-muddling direction.

Take a look at this job listing for a Boston city editor. It’s for a job at NBC Local Media, the network arm that has built “locals only” sites like NBC Los Angeles and NBC New York. From the job description, it would seem evident that NBC Boston can’t be far behind.

Why would an NBC Boston be any different from the network’s other sites in major metros? The existing 10 sites are all in markets where NBC owns its local station — they’re O&Os, TV parlance for owned-and-operated by the network. But NBC’s Boston station, WHDH, is just an NBC affiliate, owned by Sunbeam Television. And it appears NBC Boston is designed for the network to compete with its own affiliate in its market — online, at least.

Chris Wayland, WHDH general manager, confirmed to me his station has had zero involvement with the development of a new NBC Boston site and said it will include no local news produced by WHDH staff. And he said if the network decides to launch its own Boston presence, it would have no plans to shut down the station’s own website, (In the existing NBC O&O markets, local stations have merged their sites into the network-branded sites; call-letter URLs like now redirect to NBC Local domains.)

I checked in with Brian Buchwald, executive vice president of NBC Local Integrated Media, to see how a Boston site fits into their gameplan and whether it would have any association with WHDH. Buchwald said he couldn’t yet talk about the network’s moves, but that he would be able to in a few weeks.

There’s a reason WHDH’s call letters might sound familiar to a non-Bostonian: It’s been a troublemaker for the network before. It’s the largest NBC affiliate that isn’t an O&O. The station made waves when its management initially refused to broadcast “The Jay Leno Show” in the 10 p.m. timeslot, opting instead for an early newscast. NBC threatened to strip WHDH of its network affiliation, and the station eventually backed down.

Expanding onto local turf

Back in August, I asked NBC Local’s Buchwald about the expansion question while working on a separate article about NBC Local. He certainly seemed open to the idea. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript:

Mac Slocum: Do you see opportunities to expand into the markets that are not owned and operated? Is that something that’s being discussed? Or, right now is the focus primarily on the 10 owned and operated stations?

Brian Buchwald: There’s been some publicly available information out there that points to that direction, so what I’d say to you is: there’s no reason why a model that resonates in 10 markets couldn’t resonate in more markets. 

Mac: You’re referring to the domain registrations, I think? Is that right?

Brian: I’m saying if we build a model that works in New York as well as L.A., Chicago, Miami, San Francisco and Dallas, which are all different cities, different native user bases, etc., there’s no reason to think that model wouldn’t work in additional cities outside of the 10 O&O’s.

At this stage, without more information, it’s difficult to know the network’s full intentions. NBC has outlined its ideas for further collaboration with affiliates online, but Wayland was clear in saying that WHDH is not involved in whatever NBC is planning in Boston. So it looks like Boston could soon have two NBC-associated websites: and

However this plays out, the potential for local competition between a corporate entity and one of its affiliates brings up some larger questions: 

— What happens when a national outlet launches a local product in a market already served by a partner? Could one or the other claim “jurisdiction” over an area?  If it doesn’t happen in Boston, it’s bound to occur elsewhere with local efforts on the rise.

— Does brand association matter if they serve different audiences?

— If an affiliate relationship is based on one form of media (television), are other forms (web, print, radio) fair game? 

Seeing as NBC Local is gaining traction with its local sites, it’ll be interesting to see if a Boston expansion serves as a model for other national-local relationships — and whether it will change the way networks and affiliates have traditionally gotten along.

POSTED     Oct. 15, 2009, noon
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