Sunday, April 05, 2009
I was waiting for something like this to happen.
When NBC first announced that it would be keeping Jay Leno on its payroll and, astonishingly, giving him a show five nights a week at 10pm, I figured it was only a matter of time before the network's nationwide affiliates staged a revolt. Although the clever little parlor trick of a move is going to be a huge financial success for NBC even if Leno tanks in the ratings -- simply because the show costs the network almost nothing to produce, making it an all-profit venture -- the local stations carrying it are likely to pay a hefty price by losing both ad revenue and a strong lead-in audience for their 11pm newscasts.
Which is why Boston's WHDH is now saying that it won't carry Leno at 10pm.
WHDH is owned by Sunbeam Television; the same company that owns WSVN in Miami, which is where I started my career. To say that Sunbeam's CEO, Ed Ansin, is a maverick would be like calling Kim Jong Il a little eccentric. The truth is that he built his company from the ground up, by hand, and has made it hugely successful by taking bold, almost unimaginable risks and by constantly defying both the odds and the expectations of his adversaries.
Adversaries like, say, NBC.
This isn't the first time Ansin has attempted what many might consider a suicide run at the Peacock. Back in the late 80s, WSVN was an NBC affiliate; that changed when the network tried to buy the profitable station from Sunbeam and Ansin refused to sell. At the time, NBC used the only weapon it had against Ansin -- the only weapon a major network ever has when dealing with an affiliate that refuses to sit down and shut up: the threat of pulling its programming completely and moving to a competing station across town. Against less testicularly fortified individuals, this Damocletian tactic probably would've worked, since no local TV station wants to be exiled from the big kids' table and suddenly find itself forced to air re-runs of Roseanne during prime time. But Ansin basically told NBC to go screw themselves, and when the network did in fact drop WSVN as an affiliate, buying WTVJ instead (which it's ironically now attempting unsuccessfully to sell), he came up with what at the time was a staggeringly audacious strategy to keep "Channel 7" relevant: He turned it into the News Station in South Florida, pouring money into news-gathering hand over fist and running somewhere in the neighborhood of nine hours of live local news a day. The gamble paid off. WSVN's ratings have been big and its influence has been impossible to overestimate ever since. The rest is television history.
This makes Ed Ansin one very tough nut for NBC to crack and honestly the best -- and maybe only -- guy to take a stand against a corporate entity that critics accuse of having no issue generating profit for itself at the expense of those outlets actually carrying its programming to the audience.
Needless to say, NBC is once again threatening to dump WHDH in Boston if Ansin doesn't relent and agree to run Leno in its regular time slot.
I have a feeling I already know what Ed Ansin's response to the network will be.