Is Natalie Jacobson leaving WCVB?

With Natalie Jacobson’s contract set to expire in July, Boston magazine has learned that her New York-based agent has sent a “reel” to television stations around town—the kind of videotape anchors and reporters circulate when they’re looking for a job. Jacobson told me via e-mail that there have been no discussions about a new deal at WCVB. She denied any knowledge of the reel, and her agent did not return phone calls. Bill Fine, Channel 5’s general manager and president, said the station doesn’t comment on contract negotiations.

“All talent has a tape,” Fine said. “She’s been at WCVB for 35 years. I imagine she still wants to be a part of this station.”

That’s up for debate. Although Jacobson finished at the top of the ratings during the February sweeps, she’s been notably unhappy lately. She’s made it clear to people close to her that’s she’s displeased with management’s decision to install Ed Harding as her co-anchor. It hasn’t helped, either, that Linda Polach, a WCVB producer for 30 years, and a close friend of Jacobson, left to become an executive producer for WGBH’s “Greater Boston.”

Of course, there are also questions about just how eager Channel 5 is to bring back an anchor who, for all her ratings success, is known for being difficult at times. A decade ago, the idea of WCVB letting Jacobson walk out the door would have seemed unthinkable. No longer. Channel 5 is coming off an impressive ratings coup—during the February sweeps, each of the station’s newscasts won its time slot, something that hasn’t happened in a decade. Sure, one of those broadcasts was anchored by Jacobson, but the station is clearly healthy even without her in the mix. Is it possible that Natalie Jacobson has become expendable? It just might be. The trend across the country is to put younger talent on camera and ditch the older, familiar faces. (Jacobson will turn 64 in August.) Hell, Channel 5 has already done it once with Jacobson’s on-and-(former) off camera partner, Chet Curtis. Jettisoning Curtis was certainly a risk at the time, but Channel 5 has since survived without him.

If Jacobson were to leave, where exactly would she go? Fox 25 and Channel 7 focus on slick, production-heavy newscasts and talent decades younger than Jacobson. Over at WBZ, there have been whispers about going fresher and hipper, too. That pretty much leaves the ratings wasteland at NECN, which seems unlikely. At first glance, there aren’t many options.

But this is Natalie Jacobson we’re talking about. She’s the newscaster equivalent of the Citgo sign—a familiar and beloved part of Boston’s landscape and tradition. “If I were at another station and Natalie came to me and said that she wanted to jump ship, I’d hire her in two seconds. Make that one second,” says Jim Thistle, who worked with Jacobson at WCVB for 14 years as news director and vice president. Adds Northeastern television professor Alan Schroeder, “If she goes to another station, it would be a balance of power shift. For any station she went to, it would automatically throw the anchor hierarchy out of alignment and it would change the competitive landscape of all the stations in town.”

All of that has led to informed speculation that what’s really going on here is a power struggle. Call it high-profile contract negotiations concerning the terms under which Jacobson will stay at Channel 5.

“She doesn’t need a tape,” Thistle points out. “Unless she’s angry and she wants to send a tape around to rattle someone’s cage. It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Knowing Natalie, and I know her pretty well, I could see her doing it to force something to happen.”