Into the Black

The programming quickly improved. NECN had been on the air for less than a year when it won the Associated Press award for best newscast, beating the three local network affiliates. A year and a half after its launch, the Globe critic who had panned NECN now had tempered praise: “New England Cable News continues to improve, but is more adept as a headline service than as a news source providing added depth to stories.”[9]

Viewers, however, were still hard to come by. NECN lost more than $10 million in its first year, including start-up costs. Advertising sales—which, according to NECN’s business plan, would eventually account for 65 percent of revenue—were below $1 million in the first year. NECN charged $250 to $500 for a 30-second spot, compared to the $3,000 charged by the top-rated telecast, Channel 5 (WCVB). According to critics, NECN hadn’t found its niche. “In a very cluttered market, blessed with good local news, people need to think about what they want out of New England Cable News,” said Mark Jurkowitz of the Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly newspaper. “And New England Cable News isn’t giving them the answer.”[10]

In the spring of 1993, Greater Boston still provided more than three quarters of NECN’s audience. But Balboni continued to believe that there was unsatisfied demand for his product. “Our mission is to convince cable operators to carry us,” Balboni said. “It’s a very tough job and it takes time.”[11] Balboni was proved right. Over the next few years, NECN expanded. By June of 1996, it reached every major city in New England except for Providence, Rhode Island. By April 1997, it was available in 2 million homes, twice as many as when it began five years earlier, “the magic number in terms of our viability as a business,” said Balboni.[12] Almost 90 percent of cable subscribers in Greater Boston and 58 percent in those in New England now had NECN. Some 40 percent of these homes tuned in at least once during an average month.

In the mid-nineties, NECN opened bureaus in Manchester, New Hampshire and Hartford, Connecticut and built a second studio and control room in Newton. As it became more established, NECN was able to hire well-known anchors, veterans of the Boston news scene who brought both credibility and viewers to the station. Beginning in November 1998, NECN began to beat CNN; that is, it attracted a larger audience in New England in an average week. Balboni’s business plan had predicted that NECN would begin to make money within four years. NECN missed the goal by two years: It first turned a profit in 1998.

Footnotes

[9] Ed Siegel, “Six O’Clock Highs and Lows: Ch. 7 Takes Tabloid Path in Race to Win Local News Game,” Boston Globe, Nov 3, 1993, p. 75.

[10] Glenn Rifkin, “A News Niche Grows in New England.”

[11] Glenn Rifkin, “A News Niche Grows in New England.”

[12] Daniel M. Kimmel, “Good News at NECN: Cable Service Can Profit From Growth,” Boston Herald, p. 32.