Past the Half-Year Mark, NBC’s WBTS Has Yet to Crack the Competition

Boston’s local news battle is still largely between WCVB and WHDH

Why This Matters

The creation of an NBC O&O tests the power of local affiliates.

For all the noise surrounding the January launch of WBTS, NBC’s new O&O in Boston, the market’s local news ratings race has remained largely status quo. Longtime contenders WCVB and newly independent WHDH continue to jockey for the top spot, while WBTS has yet to crack the competition.

From January to June, Hearst-owned ABC affiliate WCVB’s newscasts ranked No. 1 with adults 25-54 at key times — 6 a.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Sunbeam’s WHDH, the former NBC affiliate, ranked No. 2 at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.; CBS O&O WBZ ranked No. 2 at 11 p.m., according to Nielsen ratings.

WHDH, which became a news-heavy independent after losing its affiliation in January, and WCVB switched ratings positions at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., per Nielsen. WHDH also ranked No. 1 at noon, followed by WBZ.

NBC’s WBTS, which at launch threatened to upend the market — and, in time, still could — ranked fifth at all of those key times, outranked by Cox’s Fox affiliate WFXT as well as, as well as the other leading stations, the ratings show.

What, at this point, any of that means in one of the country’s most competitive and closely watched TV markets depends on whom you ask.

Habits Are Hard to Break

For the leaders, the ratings indicate deep-seated viewer loyalty in Boston, where viewers take local news to heart. A newcomer, even one with the backing of the NBCUniversal station group, is going to have a tough time getting people to give up longtime favorites.

That is perhaps most apparent with the continued success of WHDH which, despite major investments to expand its news operations before going independent, ran the risk of losing viewers when it lost its longtime NBC affiliation — and all the bonuses such as primetime programming that come with it — on Jan. 1.

Not only does the station continue to perform well in key local news hours but, according to ratings, its 6:30 p.m. newscast, which launched in January, ranked No. 2 in July, outperforming the CBS and NBC network news programs.

“I think viewers are very smart and they are able to make decisions on who they choose for the news,” WHDH VP and general manager Paul Magnes said. “We have just stayed focused on what we have always done and we are doing more of it.”

Yet, helming a station that’s not even a year old, WBTS general manager Mike St. Peter said the station’s progress is also on course — even doing “better than we expected in some ways” — in terms of gaining a foothold.

NBC’s primetime programming is drawing audiences. And between its local news output and foray into the community, the station is garnering attention, he said.

The station’s 11 p.m. and 7 p.m. newscasts are doing particularly well gaining traction, St. Peter said, and the challenges in other time slots come as no surprise. “We are struggling in early afternoon which is exactly what we expected. We knew it would be tough. Boston is a very competitive market, where viewers are quite loyal to stations they have been watching for years.”

The Hub, a daily lifestyle show, is an added boon, he said. WBTS, Telemundo-owned WNEU and NBCU’s New England Cable News had a big presence as a sponsor of Boston Pride Week, he said. “We are out there.”

St. Peter also said negative buzz surrounding the departure of two minority journalists was wrongly cast by local news outlets as the station having a diversity problem. One of the exiting journalists was a freelancer who left for a full-time job, he said, while the other made a job switch.

Industry observers, though, don’t see the station’s sluggish start in quite the same light.

NBC May Have Miscalculated

Preston Padden, the former News Corp. and Disney-ABC top executive, said WBTS’s poor performance reflects a miscalculation on the part of NBC’s station group.

“Sometimes the networks underestimate the value of their local affiliates,” Padden said. “Viewers share a very personal connection with their local TV stations and networks can’t assume they can just switch platforms and get the same results.

“I like and respect the NBC people. But I think this decision was just a mistake,” he said.

St. Peter said NBC is in Boston for the duration, with expectations in line with the reality of what it takes to garner stature in the market.

“We have a lot of optimism moving forward,” he said. “We are here to be successful in this marketplace. That’s our goal. We think the entry of NBC Boston has made everyone just sharper. We think that’s good for viewers.”