NECN's Niche

Depending on the story and the time-slot, NECN competed against different stations. It teamed up first with Channel 25, and then with Channel 38, to produce a 10 p.m. newscast that competed with Channel 56 for early-to-bed viewers. At the same time, NECN provided national news coverage, which drew viewers away from CNN and other national cable news channels. In fact, ratings revealed that as a rule more New Englanders watched NECN than CNN, except when there was a national story of extraordinary interest, such as the O.J. Simpson trial. But NECN’s bread-and-butter was the sort of sensational local story also featured by the other local news broadcasts.

Although NECN competed against the other Boston news channels on certain stories, it could not—and did not need to—beat them head-to-head in the ratings. According to its radio-style ratings model, it was cumulative viewership that mattered most, and NECN sought to attract viewers during off-peak times. According to CJR, around-the-clock news channels appealed particularly to niche demographic groups, such as commuters who could not make it home in time for the evening news, and young parents who watched the news when they had a spare 15 minutes. In general, ratings of local news channels peaked during primetime, weekday mornings before 9, and weekend mornings.

Some stories NECN had to itself, because the scope of its coverage was narrower than that of national news cable stations yet broader than that of the other local news broadcasts. “If our mandate is New England,” said Kravetz, “that means we’ll skip a lot of stories—fires, car accidents, petty crimes—that a local station might do.”[18] NECN could, for example, choose not to report on a fire in Boston in favor of a school board controversy in a Boston suburb. The major TV stations in Boston reached hundreds of communities, but lacked the resources and inclination to cover most of them in-depth. NECN filled in the gap.

Advantages and Disadvantages. NECN’s relatively small budget put it at a disadvantage, especially during breaking stories. While recent technological advances helped NECN to compensate, there was sometimes no substitute for the superior resources of the network affiliate stations. NECN producers, reporters, and technicians had to do more with less. But the challenges were not just financial. NECN had to fill 24 hours a day without relying too heavily on repeat programming. “I give Charlie Kravetz … a lot of credit for what he has to do over there every day,” said the news director at Channel 4. “It’s quite a daunting task, trying to fill up that much time.”[19]

But NECN enjoyed certain advantages. Its competitors had to wait until the next newscast to report stories, unless they decided to preempt network programming—an expensive and often unpopular undertaking. Reporters competed fiercely to get their pieces into a very constricted news hole. NECN, by contrast, could air a story as soon as it was finished, or could put up a brief report on a piece still in development, then report additional information as it became available.

NECN could also cover stories more thoroughly than local news broadcasts, which had only two to three hours a day to deliver the news. When former Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev came to Boston in 1992, NECN covered the visit for five straight hours. NECN provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the 1997 trial of Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old British au pair charged with murder after the baby in her care died. The “nanny trial” coverage generated high ratings, so high that the network affiliates also began to carry it live.

An Alternative. Once Channel 5, under pressure of competition from Channel 7, became glitzier and faster paced, NECN was generally regarded as the most sober TV news outlet in the market. That was by design: NECN news managers wanted their station to be an alternative, a serious news channel holding the line against tabloidization. They saw NECN not so much as a direct challenger to its competitors but as a different creature altogether, something like the National Public Radio of local television news. Speaking to the Globe, Kravetz said:

I still think there’s a place and need and value for a station you can tune in to and get news without hype and without sensationalism… We get feedback that, yes, we’re a slower animal, but that’s good for a population troubled by the direction that local news is headed in.[20]

Balboni concurred: “We give people a qualitative alternative to the broadcast news on TV, which has lowered the standards, shortened the duration of stories, and left behind people who want a more intelligent, substantive presentation of the news.”[21]

Not all observers were so generous. The Boston Herald, a frequent critic of the station, found it precious. The newspaper called NECN “dour, elitist, defensive” and suggested that it was less interested in fashioning an exciting, risky station than in gaining “respectability—a precious commodity to the channel’s news director, Charles Kravetz.”[22] This press tended to depict the NECN newsroom as Kravetz’s personal fiefdom. But NECN prided itself on encouraging collaboration among producers, reporters, and anchors. “We tend to talk it through until we come together in a decision,” says Tom Melville, an executive producer. “We seem to be able to successfully get everybody on board.”[23]

True, Kravetz and Balboni set editorial policy. They wanted NECN above all to be accurate, even if that meant going relatively slowly on a breaking story. “The idea that there is such a thing as a real truth, there is something that is verifiable, is core to good journalism,” Kravetz says.[24] High-quality journalism, Kravetz and Balboni believed, would pay commercial dividends in the long-term. Sports Director Steven Safran explains NECN’s philosophy:

The way you build a reputation isn’t by the one story getting up six seconds before the other guy’s; it’s how you do it over time. NECN has always taken the approach of: If we are consistently doing these stories methodically and building up our reputation over years and years and years, then people are going to trust us as a matter of course.[25]

But NECN was hardly puritanical. It was a news outlet like any other, hungry for a good story. As it boasted in a press release about its live coverage of an infamous ice-skating scandal during the 1994 Olympics: “NECN was the only place to turn for a replay of Tonya Harding’s press conference in which she confessed to knowing about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.” Many of the stories that NECN relied on for ratings, like the “nanny trial,” covered violent or salacious topics—the same stories that tended to dominate the other local newscasts. NECN amassed the highest ratings of its first year when it covered the three-week trial of a software engineer who had murdered his wife and small children. It impressed critics and attracted the attention of its competitors with its breaking coverage of 1994 murders at an abortion clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts. Rocky Mountain Media Watch found in a 1999 study that almost two-thirds of NECN news stories centered on violent topics: war, disaster, and crime.

But NECN did exhibit differences. While the station was just as likely as its competitors to cover “juicy” stories, it was more likely to cover them in-depth. It also aired documentaries. A Globe article described NECN’s approach:

The "scrappy station," as it’s been called by TV critics, has survived in the crowded Boston market by staying out of step with the industry. While others were downplaying "personality driven" news, it hired veteran anchors Chet Curtis, Margie Reedy, R.D. Sahl, and Tom Ellis. When the push began for faster-paced newscasts, NECN opted for fewer, more in-depth stories (on average two to eight minutes long.)[26]

Footnotes

[18] Daniel M. Kimmel, “NECN Coming Into Its Own,” Patriot Ledger, July 22, 1996, P. 15.

[19] Don Aucoin, “Cable’s News-Comers: Regional News Operations Challenging Broadcasters, Changing Viewers Habits.”

[20] Ed Siegel, “TV Wars.”

[21] Don Aucoin, “Cable’s News-Comers: Regional News Operations Challenging Broadcasters, Changing Viewers Habits.”

[22] Monica Collins, “NECN Needs a Niche,” Boston Herald, March 25, 1994, p. 45.

[23] Author’s interview with Thomas Melville, June 5, 2007, in Newton, MA. All further quotes from Melville, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[24] Author’s interview with Charles Kravetz, June 5, 2007, in Newton, MA. All further quotes from Kravetz, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[25] Author’s interview with Steven Safran, June 5, 2007, in Newton, MA. All further quotes from Safran, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[26] Suzanne C. Ryan, “Cable Station Turns 10 with a Sense of Patience.”