NBC Boston's launch has been the subject of an intense promotional campaign.

Credit: Publicity photo

Grudge Match: The Brewing Battle Between WHDH-TV And NBC Boston

December 30, 2016

Step inside the Newton offices of New England Cable News and Telemundo Boston, both of which are owned by NBC, and it's clear that something big is underway. 

The lobby is flooded with cardboard boxes and hard-shell suitcases packed with TV equipment. And the desk in GM Mike St. Peter's corner office boasts some eye-catching swag--including a Lego news helicopter featuring the NBC logo and a small xylophone that makes the trademark NBC chimes when struck. 

As all this circumstantial evidence suggests, St. Peter's management portfolio recently expanded to include a third, much bigger station: NBC Boston, which debuts on New Year's Day.

For two decades, signature NBC programs like the Tonight Show and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit came to Boston-area viewers on WHDH, also known as Channel 7, a network affiliate owned by Florida-based Sunbeam. But a year ago, NBC announced that it was ending that relationship and launching a new local station that the network will own and operate. This arrangement will give the network more control over everything from aesthetics to marketing to programming decisions--an area where NBC and Sunbeam's owner, Ed Ansin, have clashed in the past. 

Since then, it's been St. Peter's job to make this new arrangement a reality. 

"We've spent a lot of time this year hiring additional staff people, both in news and editorial and behind the scenes--sales, finance, operations," St. Peter says. "All told, there's probably been 80 people that have been hired this year."

And, he adds, there have been big technical changes too, including a new broadcast studio and fancy new equipment aimed at bolstering NBC Boston's weather coverage. 

According to St. Peter, the new station will also emphasize investigative and consumer-affairs reporting, with an editorial tone that sounds rather understated. 

"We are not going to be one of those stations that just blast every story as 'BREAKING NEWS,' some of which happens hours earlier," St. Peter says. "That is definitely going to be something that we're very cognizant of."

One big challenge for NBC Boston? Letting viewers know where to find it. It's especially tricky because the station will broadcast over the air in Massachusetts and New Hampshire on three separate signals--though St. Peter insists it's really not that complicated.

"In the shorthand that we give people, if you're on cable, look at 10 first--or your guide," St. Peter says. "And if you're over the air, check out 60. Or 8."

There's another obstacle NBC Boston will have to contend with. Its news shows will compete not just with WBZ, WCVB, and Fox 25, but also with WHDH--which is ramping up its own coverage as its divorce from NBC becomes official.

"I think people will tune in to us," says WHDH evening anchor Kim Khazei. "And to have 12 hours of news a day, they'll be able to turn to us any time and know they can get their news from us in a really great way."

You read that right: WHDH is planning a whopping 12 hours of local news every day, four and a half hours more than the station currently offers. Which raises an obvious question: how much local news does the Boston area really need?

The answer, Khazei insists, is: more than you might think--especially in an era when so many people watch other programming whenever they feel like it, via DVR or online streaming. 

"People are busy, they have jobs, they're coming and going," Khazei says. "Do I think someone is going to watch 12 hours of news? Of course not. But it fits with people's lifestyles, and it's live, it's aggressive. And you're not going to DVR the news."

There's a lot of money at stake here. Local ad revenues at Boston stations can top $100 million annually. And like NBC Boston, WHDH is spending money now in order to make it in the future, hiring 30 newsroom staffers and giving its downtown Boston studios an extreme makeover of their own.

As a station, WHDH has a longstanding reputation for being splashy and aggressive. And you can sense that swagger as Khazei talks about the future.

"I've been in this market since 1994, and it doesn't matter if I'm at 'PQX--I'm here at the News Station, I'm here with Boston-and-beyond viewers who I really feel I have a relationship with and really trust me," she says.

"Plus, turn on any station and just compare how the news is done. I'm not going to take anything away from the new kids on the block. But there's no way their news is going to look like ours, in any way."

Not that the new NBC Boston is the only competition for the new, newly independent WHDH. But as Boston's media market braces for its biggest shake-up in recent memory, that's kind of how it feels.



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