Ed Ansin makes for a great villain. The Massachusetts native who came home to buy WHDH-TV, Channel 7, is filthy rich. He helped create the so-called “Miami-style news,” which his critics think has made a mockery of local television journalism. His stations have a reputation for paying people poorly, chewing them up, and spitting them out. He essentially fired one of Boston's favorite anchorwomen when she was seven months pregnant. Even when he smiles, his long, angular face resembles that of the baneful Mr. Burns on The Simpsons.
So it's surprising, if not almost disappointing, to hear Marian Heard, head of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, sing the praises of a “warm, witty, and gracious” man who has given away millions of dollars to Boston-area philanthropies.
And it's almost equally anticlimactic to meet him. Undemonstrative and prone to thoughtful pauses, he turns out to be the opposite of his notorious creation Â— television news that is dynamic, fast-paced, aggressive, attention-getting. And very popular.
Boston's other television stations use code words to distinguish themselves from Channel 7. They tout their integrity and depth of coverage, clearly implying that Channel 7 lacks these qualities. Media groups regularly hand out awards to channels 4 and 5 while condemning Channel 7. Critics dismiss the station's high ratings (which dropped off last summer but regained ground leading into this month's ratings sweeps) as the result of strong NBC lead-in programs. “I would caution against giving Ed Ansin too much credit,” says Terry Anzur, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. “If you come on after ER, it helps.”
Some suggest that Ansin's approach bodes ill for the very future of broadcast journalism. Anzur and James Thistle, director of Boston University's broadcast journalism program, say journalism schools have actually changed to reflect the realities of the Miami-style format. It has even influenced the old-boy network newscasts, which have become head-spinning amalgamations of images that move at breakneck speed.
“It's not designed for everybody to like,” Ansin responds. “It's designed for a target audience.” But despite his claims that such criticisms don't bother him, he is clearly annoyed by them. When they come up, he lowers his eyes and begins shuffling papers. He has his publicist call days after an interview to convey his concerns about rehashing the same tired complaints. Last spring, he threatened a legal blitz against the Boston Herald and Margery Eagan, who claimed that Channel 7 staffers had called Ansin a “despicable, ruthless, egomaniacal, power-mad narcissistic troll” for failing to renew the contract of popular anchorwoman Kim Carrigan. (Ansin dismisses Carrigan's departure as a dispute over her demand for a 25 percent salary increase. But insiders say discussions didn't take place until Carrigan's contract was almost up, and that when her side finally broke the ice with an offer, Ansin cut her loose.)
Ansin is arrogant, in the same way most successful businessmen are: either as an ingredient for, or a byproduct of, success. In a business where you scratch for every ratings fraction, Ansin thinks his nearly 40 years of success prove he knows what the hell he's doing.
Born in Worcester and raised in Athol, Edmund Ansin spent much of his childhood in the Miami area, where his father transformed a small New England shoemaking fortune into a large Florida real estate fortune. Prep school at Andover was followed by undergrad at Harvard, which so bored him that he left after cramming three years' worth of credits into four semesters.
His real education came from his father, who taught him how to innovate and persevere. Ansin senior battled for nearly a decade to win a license for Miami's WSVN Channel 7 in 1962, at which time he installed his son as executive vice president. Television was a novel entity, and young Ansin fell in love with it.
His father's lessons have served him well. In the early '80s, for example, Ansin began developing an office park in Miramar, Florida, on family-owned land most people “thought of as cow pasture,” according to friend and developer Leonard Miller. Now the town is set to build retail centers, a new city hall, and housing, transforming the cow pasture into a bustling commercial area Â— and turning his hundreds of acres into extremely valuable land.
The tale of Ansin's foresight also explains how, in 1988, he transformed television news forever.
Until that year, WSVN had been an NBC station, but when the network jumped ship and bought Miami's CBS affiliate, Ansin was left to scramble. He wooed CBS, but that network purchased yet another station. WSVN was suddenly floundering; without network programming, it looked dead in the water. The station had, by Ansin's own admission, essentially been running on autopilot. “We were very much the traditional network affiliate,” he says. “We considered ourselves an appendage of the network.”
Ansin made a quick study of successful independent stations and deciphered their formula: morning kids' shows, afternoon game shows, evening movies, and syndicated sitcoms. He promptly threw it out the window. Instead, he turned to the only programming a station completely controls: news. He and news director Joel Cheatwood started pumping out hours and hours of news, as fast-paced and exciting as possible. What they created was the now-familiar Miami-style news: frenzied, crime-obsessed, live-via-satellite coverage reported by pretty, young faces. “If it bleeds, it leads” became an industry catch phrase.
WSVN's news shows vaulted to the top of the market, and Ed Ansin instantly became a legend. “When people saw the success that WSVN had, stations all over the country started copying the format,” says Don Fitzpatrick, publisher of the industry newsletter ShopTalk.
In the recessionary early '90s, Ansin went searching for a second station. Ultimately, he looked homeward. “Because I was from here I felt I could relate to it,” he says. “I don't relate much to Texas.” Boston's Channel 7, a perennial loser, was for sale, and the stodgy newscasts at channels 4 and 5 looked like easy targets. “In some ways the news programs were very good, but they didn't cover breaking news,” Ansin says now. “They were talking about news, not covering it.”
He bought Channel 7 in 1993 and brought Cheatwood up from Miami. Boston's intellectual elite erupted in horror. Michael Dukakis decried the imminent poisoning of the airwaves. Channel 7 newspeople, most notably R.D. Sahl, fled, in his case, to New England Cable News. Pundits declared that Bostonians would never deign to watch.
They were wrong. Channel 7 shot to the top.
The Ansin-Cheatwood approach in Boston differed somewhat from the murder-and-mayhem newscasts in Miami. “We never had the excesses we had at WSVN,” says Thistle. “It never became the tabloid horror show that many people predicted.” It's a pastiche of ideas: more news items per broadcast; more video and graphic elements; more sound effects; more live “on-the-spot” reporting; and more reliance on good stories, regardless of their proximity or relevance to local viewers. “When you finished watching a half-hour of [Channel 7] news, you were excited as hell,” says Thistle, “but you couldn't remember what the news stories were.”
Much of the change was made possible by multimillion-dollar investments in such technologies as satellite feeds and computer-generated graphics. Ansin has redone the newsroom twice in his eight years of ownership. It is a wondrous place. Ten cameras patrol it. Special ” stations” ring the perimeter, including an “Attack on America” set erected less than 48 hours after the September 11 attacks. A bank of televisions lines the back wall.
But it's the philosophy of infotainment that really makes Ansin's news what it is. Reporters are always in motion; anchors pop up in different spots around the studio; graphics whoosh on and off the screen. Each image rushes into the next, with never a breath of dead audio. It's similar to the way action-movie directors keep the pace frantic to distract from holes in the plot line.
In response, channels 4 and 5 have adapted to what they outwardly decry. “We're becoming more of a headline service,” Thistle says of the local news media. Having served as news director for all three stations in the pre-Ansin era, he bemoans the prominence of puff stories Â— or, as he puts it, “whatever video you can clip off the feed. Car chases in Texas, rollovers in California. What does that have to do with what [Senate President Thomas] Birmingham or [House Speaker Tom] Finneran is doing?”
Indeed. In the days leading up to the World Trade Center attack, local newscasts were covering the story of a monkey lost in New Hampshire.
Lost animals are hardly top stories in the local dailies, but Channel 7 is perfectly comfortable leaving the lengthy analysis to the print folks. “When I watch the 11 o'clock news, I want to know who won the Red Sox game and will it rain,” says Channel 7 general manager Mike Carson. “I don't watch it anticipating a long piece on the MCAS test. Very few people watch television for that kind of thing.”
Ansin tends to liken his news broadcasts to movie productions, which rankles “capital-J journalists,” to use Anzur's term. To them, Ansin is, in some ways, the embodiment of the Almighty Dollar that corrupts the Integrity of Journalism. But Ansin might, in fact, be the last one left uncorrupted. In this age of media conglomeration, Ansin is of a dying breed, beholden to nobody, answerable only to his own pocket. Channel 5 is owned by Hearst-Argyle Television. CBS owns Channel 4. Even scrappy little New England Cable News is jointly owned by AT&T Broadband and the Hearst Corporation. “The difference between him and the rest of broadcasting,” says Fitzpatrick, “is he signs the checks himself.”
Some of those checks Â— big ones Â— go to charity. Ansin is the only person who has received the United Way's Alexis de Tocqueville Award for philanthropy in three different cities. He coughed up a cool million to build Emerson College's nifty new radio station and technical communications building. A few years ago, Ansin and his brother Ron, former Massachusetts commerce commissioner, made $2.6 million selling a plot of land. They gave all the money to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston and their Youth Service Providers Network.
Of course, Ansin's generosity could be a ploy for positive publicity. After all, a couple of million here and there certainly doesn't take food off the plate of a man whose fortune is estimated at $800 million. But the United Way's Marian Heard says Ansin's philanthropy is genuine. He often gives anonymously, she says, and goes out of his way to attend functions and donate airtime on his stations.
“The way he expresses it to me,” brother Ron says, “is that if you earn a living in a community, you have an obligation to the community.”
In an interview on September 10, Terry Anzur said that the best time to judge the success of Channel 7 would not be during sweeps month, but during a catastrophic event. “In crisis, people turn to the sources they trust,” she said. “My guess is [Boston viewers] still go to Channel 4, Channel 5, or even NECN.”
The next morning the nation was attacked by terrorists, and when Bostonians rushed to their electronic hearths, Anzur was proved wrong: Channel 7 stayed neck-and-neck with Channel 5 in the days after the attack, often winning at six and eleven.
All the local stations have since gotten widespread praise for ably switching gears from lost-monkey reports to Serious Journalism. “I thought they all did a great job,” says Thistle. “I think that Boston could hold its head up proudly.”
Obviously, the would-be villain hasn't destroyed the local news after all.