Will NBC Affiliation Deal Shake Up Boston TV?

By Kevin Eck 

The affiliation deal between NBCUniversal and Sunbeam’s Boston station WHDH is still good for more than a year, but The Boston Globe reports the history between Sunbeam and NBC might lead to big changes in how TV is watched in the Boston market.

Some speculate that NBC wants to buy WHDH outright. The Globe says if that doesn’t happen and the affiliation deal goes bad, NBC could move its programming to Comcast-owned cable network NECN.

“They can do it, but it’s very aggressive,” said Reed Hundt, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission who is now chief executive of the Coalition for Green Capital in Washington. “If they did that, it would be big news because it would be regarded as NBC phasing the ‘B’ [for broadcasting] out of its name.”

An NBCUniversal spokesperson told TVSpy, “Our affiliation agreement with WHDH remains in effect for more than a year. We don’t comment on our discussions with our affiliate partners.”

Chris Wayland, executive vice president of Sunbeam, said, “We fully expect to be the NBC affiliate in Boston beyond 2016.”

Wayland will probably be right in the end, said Mark Fratrik, chief economist at the media research firm BIA/Kelsey. Networks like NBC have maintained the affiliate system, even in markets where they don’t own a local broadcaster, to ensure maximum distribution.

But he said that for many years, they also have kicked around the idea of cutting out stations like WHDH, anticipating a time when virtually everyone watches television on cable, satellite, or the Internet, making the advantage of over-the-air broadcasting negligible. Six percent of US households still rely on antennas, according to a study last year by the Consumer Electronics Association.

“In the strategic planning departments of these networks, it’s a constant topic,” Fratrik said. “It’s just that no one’s done it yet.”

Michael Botein, a former FCC attorney and professor emeritus at New York Law School, said Americans’ viewing habits are changing so rapidly that moving network programs from a local broadcast station to a cable channel could make business sense right now.

“It may look bizarre, but I don’t think it is,” Botein said.

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