Boston’s Broadcast News Overload
By James P. Freeman | February 21, 2017, 14:10 EST
Over twenty years ago, during a segment that always followed the introduction of his Sunday program This Week — in what must have been a first for television news programming — the late David Brinkley simply said: “First, as for the news since the Sunday morning papers, there isn’t any… so we’ll be back with today’s program in a moment.”
Imagine that. It was a moment of such utter bravery and brevity that it should have earned the host a daytime Emmy Award, the gratitude of television viewers from sea to shining sea, and the attention of broadcast executives across the fruited plain. Especially in Boston.
But Boston never got the message. A point that may become evident to those who just launched WBTS, otherwise known as NBC Boston. Last month, WHDH (formerly part of the NBC network for the last 22 years) became an independent operator while a new NBC-owned-and-operated venture (broadcasting via a patchwork quilt of signals from three stations), under the call letters WBTS, was born.
Bostonians now have a choice of six local television channels to surf through each morning, where, undoubtedly, too much is not enough. Despite emanating from The Hub, there may not be enough substantive local news (now known with a serious panache as “hard news”) to justify today’s endless coverage about, well, everything.
According to variety.com, the Boston area has approximately 2.4 million television households, which represent about 2.1 percent of total U.S. TV households. And Greater Boston is the ninth-largest TV market in the country. Attempting some explanation for adding another channel to an already-saturated market place, Mike St. Peter, president of NBC Boston, as quoted in Variety, says, “There’s a lot of news viewing [in Boston] and viewers expect a high standard of coverage.” Apparently, viewers need another venue to see another — not a day goes by without at least one — story on distressed puppies or disabled plovers.
What Boston may lack in quality it surely makes up in quantity.
On any given weekday during a 24-hour timeframe, WBTS alone broadcasts 687 minutes (or nearly twelve hours) of national and local news or news magazine-like programs. Of this time, 353 minutes (or nearly six hours) are dedicated to the NBC national feed. Remarkably, WBTS is hardly alone in oppressive coverage of events constituting “news.”
The local ABC affiliate, WCVB, features 545 hours (or just over nine hours) of national and local programming. And Boston’s oldest TV station (which first went on the air in June 1948) and the first to pioneer late afternoon news shows, WBZ (owned and operated by CBS, after a long affiliation with NBC), offers, by comparison, a scant 478 minutes of comparable programming. Like its local NBC and ABC news cousins, the station extends the 11 p.m. newscasts beyond 11:30 p.m. by a few minutes (before the late-night comedy shows begin) presumably because it can’t fit all the day’s news within a tidy 30-minute bloc at the end of the day.
But wait, there’s more …
WHDH, WFXT, and New England Cable News (which is owned by Comcast, which owns NBC) present similar daily scheduling, with hi-tech toys of the trade, like drones and Doppler radar, all in gorgeous high definition. All with the generic smorgasbord of breaking news, weather, sports, and “human interest stories” (which usually include puppies or plovers). And in case you missed anything (or they missed you), WGBH, WSBK, WLVI, and WNEU (Telemundo Boston) each has abbreviated news programming.
Variety believes that “the arrival of NBC Boston promises to raise the tempo of the broadcast TV competition, particularly in local news, public affairs and lifestyle programming.” More concern should be placed on temperance, not tempo.
Will the presence of WBTS make programming better? Will the latest entrant distinguish itself from a mostly mediocre pack? (Already, WBTS, NECN, and Telemundo Boston (all part of NBC Universal) share a new studio and other resources. Hardly distinguishing.)
Will a discerning — and simultaneously disengaged — public, which is bombarded daily by these stations embracing an unwieldy hybrid format (weaving entertainment and information and opinion), desire more of the flashy, titillating tabloid format (popularized locally by WHDH) or one in favor of more thrifty, respectable transparency (like WGBH)?
In television, winners are rewarded by high ratings. And ratings do not necessarily dictate that which serves in the public’s best interests. But ratings drive advertisers, which drive advertising revenue.
Ratings for the month of January are mixed in Boston, the data show. WBTS finished in last place for most newscasts in various audience measurement categories (called “demos”), concluded newenglandone.com. In another view of demos across seven different time periods, WCVB won four slots while WHDH won three; during the 6 p.m. telecast period WCVB had 166,785 viewers, or nearly double those of rival WHDH.
One may argue whether there is enough substantive news with thoughtful coverage to warrant six stations filling time slots at all hours of the day in the Greater Boston market place.
What is not arguable, however, is that during the days of bulky television sets with rabbit ears and weather forecasts made on mechanical boards and personalities on the scene dressed in trench coats (with fewer competitors), a greater effort would have been made to cover both a Super Bowl and a raging, unabated opioid crisis with equal time and tenacity.
James P. Freeman is a former Cape Cod Times columnist.