Everyone’s Hungry For Boston Market

A looming affiliation agreement deadline stirs the pot on NBCU’s long-rumored taste for Sunbeam’s WHDH

Why This Matters

WHY THIS MATTERS
It’s a mighty big deal when a Big Four affiliate in a top 10 market is in play.

Amid all the mergers and acquisitions of the past few years, one of the most speculated-upon targets for takeover remains fiercely independent—but that may not be the case in the coming months. WHDH Boston, half of the two-market Sunbeam TV group, remains a treasured quarry for NBCUniversal, according to multiple sources. With WHDH’s NBC affiliation ending at the close of 2016, the speculation may finally see some action.

There are various pieces to this particular puzzle. NBCUniversal has significantly ramped up its presence in Boston, where it owns New England Cable News (NECN) and Telemundo station WNEU. Sunbeam’s owner, the enigmatic, iconoclastic and considerably wealthy Ed Ansin, has shown zero interest in selling. “I don’t know how this will end,” said one veteran Boston TV figure who, like most people interviewed for this story, requested anonymity. “But I assure you it is absolutely in play.”

WHDH, a strong performer in DMA No. 7, sits in Boston’s Government Center neighborhood, along with CW sister WLVI. Eleven miles away, in suburban Newton, NECN and WNEU are in a low-slung office park. There are tangential alliances around town. Comcast and Hearst TV, owner of market leader WCVB, were partners on NECN until 2009, when Comcast bought out Hearst’s share. NECN and WHDH share a news helicopter.

NECN and WNEU recently moved into an enviable new facility that includes 46 HD monitors throughout the studio. NECN cranks out almost 70 hours of live programming each week. On Aug. 17, WNEU debuted its first-ever local newscasts.

NBCUniversal is, at least on paper, well-equipped to launch an owned station. “You can make your own judgement on that,” said one rival chief about NBC building up its Boston presence. “I can’t imagine they’d do all that other than to [launch an NBC O&O].”

NBCUniversal execs declined to comment.

Len-No!

There’s a certain degree of dysfunction between NBC and WHDH. In 2009, when NBC was planning the nightly primetime Jay Leno show, Ansin said WHDH would run 10 p.m. news in place of the program. That prompted a sharply worded statement from then-network president John Eck. “We have a number of other strong options in the Boston market,” Eck said, “including using our existing broadcast license to launch an NBC owned-and-operated station.”

After a hasty tête–à–tête in Miami between Ansin and NBC honchos, Ansin relented. Suddenly jocular, he mentioned how he and Leno share Massachusetts roots, and he wished the funnyman well.

“There’s a lot of history there,” said one Boston rival.

Something Bruin?

Boston is an exceptionally tight TV market, where robust cablers NECN and NESN, home of the Red Sox and Bruins, respectively, siphon off ratings points and revenue from the broadcast players. With the New Hampshire presidential primary just over six months away, candidates and their backers buy considerable time on the Boston stations to reach southern New Hampshire.

Stations in top 10 markets don’t become available very often, and when they do, they spark bidding wars. Sinclair’s 2013 deal for Allbritton, whose centerpiece was WJLA Washington, went for $985 million. Sources believe WHDH’s value may currently be north of $400 million. “If [NBCU parent] Comcast could get a Top 10 affiliate, I think they’d try to make it happen,” said Larry Patrick, principal at station brokerage Patrick Communications.

That estimated value assumes an ongoing NBC affiliation. When WISH Indianapolis, then part of LIN Media, lost its CBS affiliation (see sidebar), LIN was forced to knock $100 million off the company value in its merger last year with Media General. NBC famously stripped KRON San Francisco of its affiliation back in 2002, taking it for itself following an unsuccessful bid for the station; that curveball ended up plunging then-owner Young Broadcasting into bankruptcy.

NBC is not the only party looking to engage Ansin in deal talks. According to one insider, Meredith and Nexstar also have expressed interest in WHDH. “They say they can’t get in to speak with Ansin,” said the insider.

Of course, the broadcast spectrum auction is looming next March 29, and some believe major market M&A is on hold until then. “Spectrum values in certain markets, notably Boston, could well eclipse enterprise values,” said Michael Alcamo, president at investment banking outfit M.C. Alcamo & Co. “So we don’t expect any significant transactions to close until after the incentive auction concludes.”

Chris Wayland, former WHDH GM, has relocated to Miami following his promotion to Sunbeam executive VP/GM. He seems non-plussed by the increasing chatter about WHDH. “We fully expect to renew our affiliation agreement with NBC,” Wayland said.

INDEPENDENT SPIRIT IN INDIANAPOLIS

It was Aug. 25, 2014, when Les Vann took on the GM job at WISH Indianapolis. Two weeks earlier, the station received what some considered a death sentence: Due to an affiliation disagreement between WISH’s then-parent LIN and CBS, the network was yanking its affiliation. Jump ahead a year, and the station features a tireless local news operation, solid CW primetime and a bevy of local sports. Of course, the sports don’t include the beloved Colts on CBS, but there are NFL pre-and postgame programs, Chicago Cubs and White Sox games and local soccer, WNBA and horse racing.

“We’ve come a long way in a year,” says Vann. “We’ve made great strides.”

The affiliation switch happened Jan. 1. The newsroom, which tackled former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle’s court proceedings this month, starts its day at 4 a.m. with a five-hour news block, while weekend mornings both get four hours. Vann says WISH has retained its No. 3 news ratings slot in Indy.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the divorce decree, Vann had a local ice cream vendor set up at the station August 11 to dish out cones to all employees. “This has been the most exhilarating and challenging thing I’ve ever taken on,” says Vann. “I feel good.”