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NECN comes into its own

Growing and profitable, regional news channel extends its horizon 5/07/2000 08:00:00 PM Eastern

In the years immediately following the launch of New England Cable News, the joke around Boston was that the station's real name should have been New England Fable News.

Now, eight years after its launch, nobody's laughing at the operation. The channel, secure enough in its identity and reputation to officially shorten its name to NECN, has a trophy case full of prestigious reporting awards and its own place in the competitive New England media mix.

The trend in local news channels started in 1986, when Cablevision Systems launched News12 Long Island. Today, more than 30 such channels are in operation in the U.S. Most cover a single market, or even subsections of that market (the New York City metropolitan area alone has six channels).

A handful of regional news channels, however, have elected to broaden their scope. Statewide channels are operating with mixed results in Texas, Florida and Ohio. At the extreme are NECN, owned jointly by Hearst Corp. and MediaOne Group, and Belo Corp.'s Seattle-based NorthWest Cable News, which attempt to cover huge multistate regions.

Of the regional channels, NECN is not only the oldest but also the most successful, in terms of households, awards and revenues.

The channel was sired by Philip S. Balboni, who today serves as NECN's president. "I was news director at wcvb [Hearst's Boston ABC affiliate] in 1987, and I was thinking about how we would be able to grow our news and local-programming franchise. Given the demands of the network and syndicated programming, it was clear to me that the only way to do it was to create another channel."

Balboni took his proposal to the station's general manager, who was interested enough to commission a market research report. He met with executives of Boston-based Continental Cablevision, then the nation's third-largest system operator, and presented his ideas. "When they saw that having a quality service would be good for their subscribers, they said they would be interested in a joint venture."

In fall 1988, Balboni was named special assistant to the president and CEO of Hearst Corp. and moved to New York. He was assigned to new projects, technology and strategic issues, and one of the first things he did was finalize the business plan for a New England cable news channel, which launched in March 1992.

In 1997, Continental was acquired by the U.S. West Media Group for $11.6 billion and renamed MediaOne Group. The new entity continued Continental's role in the joint partnership.

Bringing Continental on board was a key decision. A channel can have all the content it needs, but, without carriage, it is likely to die on the vine.

Consider, for example, Texas Cable News (TxCN), owned by Belo Corp. The channel has the deep resources of Belo's numerous broadcasting and print properties throughout the Lone Star State, but the absence of carriage around the state has plagued TxCN. Sixteen months after its January 1999 launch, it is still in fewer than a million homes and seen only in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"The most important thing I did was to reach out to Continental Cablevision," says Balboni. "We had nicely overlapping strategic goals: Hearst with wcvb and Continental with its significant cable systems."

Even with Continental as a partner, he adds, it was difficult to get distribution. In 1993, he returned to Boston as general manager and president of the channel, with the key mission of expanding distribution.

Today, NECN is on systems in 517 New England communities. As of April, it reached 2,489,815 homes, or 64% of cable homes in the six-state region. In the Boston market, the channel can be seen in 92% of cable homes.

Federal regulators are expected to approve AT & T's buyout of MediaOne sometime this month. Although that will result in the channel's being co-owned by the nation's biggest cable operator, it will not mean significant household gains for NECN: AT & T has little presence in New England.

The lowest carriage is in Rhode Island, where only six communities receive NECN on their cable systems. Balboni says NECN is continuing to negotiate carriage with Cox Communications, which serves 98% of the state's cable market. In the meantime, however, American Broadband is building its network there and has offered NECN carriage on its system, which should be operational by the end of this year.

Even with few eyes watching in Rhode Island, NECN covers the state thoroughly, according to Balboni. "We certainly don't ignore Rhode Island, or Vermont or Maine or any state in the region. We go where the stories are."

But what is it about New England that makes anyone in Boston care about a story from Rhode Island, Vermont or Maine?

At the University of Southern Maine in Portland, studies in the region's culture share equal billing with studies about the nation as a whole. Kent Ryden, an assistant professor in USM's Department of American and New England Studies, explains, "In parts of New England, there's a real sense of having a distinctive identity and a degree of pride in that identity. Many people seem to have a lot invested in the notion that we're not like the mass culture in the rest of the country, that we're more distinctive."

NECN News Director and General Manager Charlie Kravetz is a native New Englander. "New England is clearly the only definable region in the country that has a name and history," he says.

Kravetz acknowledges that it's hard not to weight coverage toward Boston. It is the channel's critical market in terms of size and financial importance. "It represents a disproportionate [number] of our viewers. But we also have bureaus and full-time reporters in New Hampshire and Connecticut because those are the two other states where we have the greatest coverage. Then we clearly seek out stories of interest throughout the rest of New England."

The NECN staff produces more than 10 hours of original programming each day. That content is replayed or supplemented by special coverage during the day to fill out the clock. Besides frequent newscasts, there are also sports, public affairs, business and consumer programs.

A staple of NECN's early years was a time-shifted replay of partner wcvb-tv's 6 p.m. newscast. Although the time-shift was stopped two years ago, the station frequently relies on partnerships throughout the region to help feed the channel's voracious daily appetite for content. Besides WCVB-TV, NECN has relationships with Hearst-Argyle's WPTZ-TV Burlington, Vt./ Plattsburgh, N.Y. (NBC); Sinclair's WGGB-TV Springfield, Mass. (ABC) and WGME-TV Portland, Maine (CBS); LIN's WTNH-TV Hartford/New Haven, Conn. (ABC); and Clear Channel's WPRI-TV Providence, R.I. (CBS).

The most extensive relationship NECN has is with the region's leading newspaper, The Boston Globe. The channel has two robotic cameras and a full-time producer in the Globe's newsroom and does live interviews from the newspaper sets each weekday morning and evening. The partners recently launched an in-depth segment during NECN's midday newscast. Although the Globe has never chosen to break news on NECN, the two news outlets have collaborated on projects and expect to do more in the future.

NECN is more than holding its own in the ratings. According to recent reports from Nielsen Media Research and The Media Audit, 1.3 million people watch NECN in an average week, with the channel reaching more adults over the age of 18 than any other electronic news source.

However, Balboni qualifies the results as reflecting a cumulative audience vs. a single newscast on any one of the broadcast stations. "It's a good way to measure something like NECN, because people watch us all day long, not just at one time. We've been able to track this over the last four years. In The Media Audits from spring 1996 to winter 2000, we've grown in weekly cumulative audience from 520,000 persons to 1,341,000 this year. We reach more adults 18-24 than any other electronic news outlet. We reach more adults 25-54. We reach more with college degrees and more with household incomes of over $100,000."

While delighted with the qualitative makeup of his audience, Balboni absolutely beams when discussing the qualitative nature of NECN's on-air presentations.

The channel has earned more than 100 awards for its reporting, including numerous local Emmys and Associated Press awards. NECN was also the first regional cable network to receive a George Foster Peabody Award and, last December, won an Alfred I. DuPont/Columbia School of Journalism award for in-depth reporting.

Rather than require reporters to adhere to strict 60- or 90-second limits on their stories, NECN's management routinely lets stories go for however long they take to tell. Reporters "talk to news management about what they need," says Balboni, "and, if we're convinced they need whatever it is that they say, that's it."

The emphasis on reporting freedom and quality led NECN to one of its most important staffing coups.

In 1994, respected Boston anchor R.D. Sahl left whdh-tv after the station was bought by Sunbeam Television Corp. While pursuing a master's degree at Tufts University, he did a part-time stint at NECN hosting a nightly public-affairs program.

Sahl left Boston for Los Angeles in 1995, where he anchored The World Report on kcal-tv. Then Walt Disney Co. purchased ABC in 1996. "It was clear it wasn't going to be a love affair for me at kcal," he says. "As I looked around and saw what was available, I thought, At this time in my life, Boston is where I want to be living, and [NECN seems] to be doing what I want to be doing.'

"They allowed the freedom to take a little more time with stories," he explains, "and the freedom to think a bit about what you put on television, not be quite as reactive as the television business tends to be. It was a chance to work on longer-form stories of substance and not be hostage to the ratings game the way you are at a traditional over-the-air station."

Says Marsha Della-Giustina, Ph.D., who created the broadcast journalism program at Boston's Emerson College, "There was a lot of speculation about who would land R.D. when he came back to Boston. When he landed at NECN, it signaled to the broadcast community here that NECN was a player, because he's one of the toughest competitors and best anchor/journalists this market has ever seen."

With more than 20 years of experience, Sahl is an exception at NECN. Like most local and regional cable news channels, NECN is staffed primarily by younger journalists, both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes (Chicagoland TV, the news channel owned by the Chicago Tribune and called CLTV, was dubbed Children Learning Television when it debuted).

The on-air staff averages eight to 10 years of journalism experience. Many reporters and anchors make the jump to Boston from considerably smaller venues. "There are a lot of extremely talented people in medium-sized markets," says News Director Kravetz, "and they're willing to come here because we stand for something different, where they can do a kind of journalism that they pretty much can't do anywhere else."

That situation is dictated by economics. "We could not survive if our cost structure was exactly the same as the broadcast stations," Balboni notes. "Reporters and anchors make less, in some cases considerably less. I think it's fair to say that producers and photographers fall into that same category. We've worked hard to raise salaries and hold onto people we think are mission-critical."

Although it may not be able to compete dollar for dollar with their broadcast counterparts, NECN is making money. And that's not a claim every regional cable news channel can make.

It recorded its first operating profit in 1998. "The swing from 1997, when we had a loss, was almost a 200% improvement," says Balboni. "Last year, our operating profit grew by 34%. We're projecting for this year a better than 100% increase in operating profit. It's still early in the year, but we hit all our financial goals for the first quarter, and the year looks promising. Ad sales for the first quarter were good, and they're pacing very good for the second quarter as well.

"Our gross advertising total last year was up 30% over the previous year," he adds, "and national advertising was up 55%."

With its reputation and influence on the rise, will NECN outgrow cable and seek additional avenues of distribution?

NECN has already experimented with syndicating its programming. For six years in the mid and late 1990s, it produced a syndicated newscast that ran on the Boston Fox and UPN stations. It was financially beneficial, Balboni says, but highly distracting to produce a broadcast product that had to fit the mold that NECN was trying to break with its cable newscasts. The effort was dropped in 1998, and Balboni doesn't see it starting up again.

Individual segments can be viewed on demand on NECN.com, the network's Web site, as well as on Boston.com, the Globe's site. But NECN does not stream its newscasts online and has no plans to do so.

Even though alternative methods of delivery could go a long way to further expand NECN's reach into New England, Balboni pledges that NECN will remain exclusive to cable. "We know how important that is to our cable affiliates. And while we have trepidation about competition in this sector, for the foreseeable future, we believe that our best interests, and those of our affiliates, are to remain exclusive."

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