NBC has informed long-time Boston affiliate WHDH-TV (Channel 7) that its network programming will relocate to a different channel next year.
The move is designed to give NBC greater control of the channel airing its programming in the Boston metropolitan area, the nation’s seventh-largest television market by population.
Speculation that NBC would depart WHDH for another station has been swirling since last year when a report surfaced claiming the station’s parent company Sunbeam Television had rejected a buyout offer. Reports indicated that the offer made by Comcast for WHDH was approximately $200 million.
In December, media blog New England One said NBC had decided against keeping WHDH on as the network affiliate and was instead drafting plans to launch an English-language news operate at Telemundo station WNEU (Channel 60). WNEU, along with regional cable news channel NECN and the regional sports network Comcast SportsNet New England, are owned by NBC’s parent company Comcast Corporation.
On Thursday, that speculation was confirmed when WHDH owner Ed Ansin said in an interview that his company was assembling a legal team in consideration of a lawsuit against NBC that would challenge the network’s plans to relocate to another station in the area.
“We intend to contest NBC’s plans,” Ansin said.
Ansin criticized NBC’s potential plan to relocate to WNEU, which broadcasts from New Hampshire toward Boston. WNEU’s signal reaches half that of WHDH, according to information provided by the FCC, and its signal just barely skirts the Boston metropolitan area.
As a condition of its merger with NBC, Comcast said years ago that it would remain committed to investing in over-the-air stations as far as its legacy network was concerned. But a move to WNEU could force some viewers to sign up for cable or satellite in order to get NBC programming.
Viewers in locations south of Boston don’t receive WNEU’s limited signal from New Hampshire; cable customers in those areas are predominantly served by Comcast.
“They have the right to buy a station, change affiliation,” Ansin said. “That’s their privilege. They don’t have a right to violate the agreement between Comcast and NBC and the affiliates, and the government…that is clearly not in the public interest.”
An NBC spokesperson said in an e-mail that the company remains committed to over-the-air broadcasting and that Boston’s new NBC station will not be “cable-only.” The company said it is still evaluating plans for NBC’s future in Boston.
Boston is the largest television market in America where the majority of English-language broadcast stations are operated by a company not owned by their affiliated network. The area’s FOX station, WFXT (Channel 25), was operated by FOX Broadcasting Corporation until 2014 when it was traded to Cox Broadcasting for two stations in San Francisco.
For independent broadcasters, a network affiliation can make or break a channel.
In 2002, San Francisco station KRON-TV (Channel 4) ended its half century-long affiliation with NBC after the station was sold for a record $800 million to Young Broadcasting. Young aggressively outbid NBC for ownership of KRON, which at the time had been co-owned with the San Francisco Chronicle by a local family.
Young dropped KRON’s affiliation after NBC demanded the company pay $10 million for the rights to re-air NBC shows. Prior to Young’s acquisition, NBC had paid the station around $7 million to carry its programming on the channel. NBC later purchased San Jose station KNTV (Channel 11), previously affiliated with ABC and the short-lived WB Network, moving its signal beyond the reach of some people in San Francisco and much of the North and East Bay areas of the community.
KRON’s ratings slipped as an independent station, placing it behind network-owned competitors in the market. Young eventually declared bankruptcy and put KRON up for sale in 2008. KRON was acquired by Media General in 2011; the station moved its operations to leased studio space at competitor KGO-TV (Channel 7) in 2014.
WHDH, whose own local news broadcasts often lag in the ratings, is hoping to avoid a repeat in Boston of KRON’s post-NBC woes in San Francisco.
“I continue to believe that our agreement’s going to get extended,” Ansil said, “but in the event it does not, Channel 7 News is still going to flourish, still going to be the News Station in Boston, still going to have outstanding coverage.”
WHDH’s contract with NBC lapses at the end of the year.