Ed Ansin, the owner of the Boston NBC affiliate, should be appauded for deciding to air local news rather than the Jay Leno show at 10 o’clock this fall. Instead of rolling over for an increasingly indifferent network, Ansin is doing what’s best for his station.
In his column on the on the WHDH-NBC battle over Leno, TVNewsCheck Editor Harry Jessell suggests that everyone should just take a deep breath: NBC shouldn’t resort to threatening language, and WHDH should give local boy Jay Leno a chance at 10 p.m.
During most of the 20th century, when the network-local alliance was strong and mutually beneficial, I think Jessell’s advice would have been sage. But, in the current environment (and I don’t mean purely economic) what he proposes misses the main point.
Ever since the networks sprung up during the nascent days of radio, local broadcasters were a vital piece of the puzzle. They allowed the networks to reach close to 100 percent of the nation. It was a great business for both. The local broadcasters had the trust of their markets and the feet on the ground to sell airtime to local advertisers, and the networks were able to sell big national advertisers who paid a premium for reach and frequency.
Those days are long gone. Even in the 1980s and ’90s, the networks starting taking local affiliates for granted, cutting back on local comp and cutting deals that often weren’t in the best interest of the local broadcasters.
And the digital age has seen a weakening of the remaining ties. The networks have bypassed their affiliates to make their programming available online on sites too numerous to mention — from the well-regarded Hulu, the joint venture of NBC and Fox, to sites that seem to spring up weekly. Left out of this equation completely are the stations that were once the sole conduit for network programming.
While there is much hand-wringing over how newspapers have gotten themselves into big trouble by giving their content away for free online, there seems to be less concern over how the networks leaped over their affiliates and an almost 100-year relationship to go it alone, for the most part, on the Web.
Additionally, though Leno is an extraordinarily likeable and bona fide star, even NBC admits that one of the impetuses for the move was financial. It costs way less to do a week of Leno than five hours of dramas. NBC officials have said that even with a lower rating, they could still make a ton of money at 10 p.m. There seems to be less regard for what this will do to NBC affiliate newscasts at 11 p.m., though there is an advisory group of affiliates making recommendations to NBC about how to turbocharge the new Leno show to maximize lead-in to late newscasts.
In this light, Ed Ansin’s decision to do what’s right for his Boston station should be applauded. Rather than passively accept what the network is giving him, he’s doing what’s best for his station. The networks long ago stopped looking at their affiliates as equals and started considering them unnecessary middlemen. The Internet is just the final step in the process.
The future of local television depends on strong owners making the best decisions for their audiences, producing local programming where they can and, perhaps, cherry-picking from what’s out there. I loved the old days when affiliates and their networks operated as a true team. But those days are long gone, and Ansin’s gutsy move shows the way for other local broadcasters in this new world.
Mark Effron is a broadcast and cable executive; most recently, he was president and COO of a digital media company serving the television industry.