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New look, new faces emerge at NECN

After ownership change, news network retools to appeal to younger viewers

NECN has retooled its morning show with a new set and new anchors to appeal to younger viewers. NECN has retooled its morning show with a new set and new anchors to appeal to younger viewers. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011

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Along with the day’s headlines, cable news channel NECN’s freshly revamped morning program covers the same kinds of topics that draw viewers to broadcast network talk shows, including winter boots that celebrities wear, healthier Super Bowl snacks, and how to deal with skin damage from the sun.

Those stories, accompanied by flashy graphics, were all featured on the show recently, and delivered by a new pair of news anchors sitting in a redesigned set, complete with sofas, plants, book shelves, and coffee.

It’s a long way from New England Cable New’s beginnings. The cable network was established in 1992 as a round-the-clock, straight news outlet that featured seasoned local anchors from WCVB-TV (Channel 5), which like NECN, was partly owned by Hearst Corp.

But since cable giant Comcast Corp. took full ownership of NECN less than two years ago, the network has been dramatically transformed into a very different operation, with a focus on entertainment and lifestyle stories presented by new, younger faces.

Bill Bridgen, general manager and executive vice president of NECN and sister station Comcast SportsNet, said that NECN’s programming changes, retooled graphics, and set redesign will help the network stand out from the competition.

Bridgen singled out the recent morning show makeover, saying, “I couldn’t be more excited about that change. We believe that show is going to be a great success.’’

Among other changes: Some longtime employees — including veteran reporters, anchors, and news managers — have either left or did not have their contracts renewed. Also gone are many of the longer-form, documentary-style stories that helped establish NECN as a news alternative in the Boston TV market.

NECN representatives say the channel is evolving into a more vibrant news product to attract a broader audience, but reaction has been mixed among viewers and media analysts, who say they don’t recognize the network anymore. Critics assert that NECN executives are bowing to competitive pressure by taking cues from WFXT-TV (Channel 25), the local Fox affiliate — emphasizing flash over substance to attract younger viewers and new advertisers.

“Your regional news channel shouldn’t look like a regional ESPN or a regional ‘Good Morning America,’ ’’ said Susan Walker, head of the broadcast journalism department at Boston University. “NECN should look more like — and be like — a regional news channel reporting on the news.’’

Philip S. Balboni, NECN’s founder and former president, was optimistic when Comcast moved from part owner to full owner of the network in June 2009. Now he is one of its most vocal critics.

“It’s impossible to stay silent in the face of the travesty current NECN management has made of America’s most honored and respected regional news channel,’’ said Balboni, now president of GlobalPost.com, an international news website. “I find it hard to believe that the highest levels of Comcast management fully understand or approve of this tragic destruction of the valuable programming and community asset.’’

NECN executives say they are trying to make the network more contemporary in look and style and assert that it hasn’t lost its news focus.

“The approach to covering hard news, business, the political stories, remains exactly the same,’’ said Bridgen. “To anyone who says that the network has dramatically changed and lost its vision, I tell you they aren’t watching the station, and I invite them to take a closer look.’’

Last April, NECN became the first local station to add a 4:30 a.m. newscast to reach early morning commuters. In the past year, Bridgen recruited two executives from Chicago’s Fox News affiliate: station manager Stacey Marks Bronner, who runs the cable network, and news director Debra Juarez. Bridgen has also cross-pollinated sports programming between Comcast SportsNet and NECN, much the way the network used to share news content with WCVB, and introduced new weather forecasting technology. Boston.com, the Boston Globe’s website, has a content-sharing partnership with NECN for video.

“We have a passionate and loyal audience, and there is no doubt that change can be disconcerting to longtime viewers who have watched NECN under the same format for 18 years,’’ said Bridgen. “We are going to provide them the same high-quality journalistic product that the station was built on, and I am confident they will stay with us as we continue to evolve.’’

In local TV news, advertisers seek viewers in the 25-to- 54 age demographic because of their discretionary income and brand loyalty. Analysts said NECN is being transformed to draw those viewers, which Bridgen acknowledged as true.

“The faster-paced, glitzier newscast is an effort to attract more younger people — the kind of people that advertisers pay more for,’’ said Bob Papper, who studies TV news trends for the Radio Television Digital News Association.

NECN still wins only a fraction of the ratings of network affiliates. In January, for example, WCVB’s newscast drew the largest audience in Boston at 6 a.m., with 138,000 total viewers, while NECN had 18,000 viewers at that hour, according to Nielsen figures. In the same time period two years ago, before Comcast took full ownership of NECN, WCVB attracted 91,000 viewers to NECN’s 14,000. NECN representatives say their overall average rating has gone up 58 percent since Comcast took ownership in June 2009.

NECN was not designed to be an immediate ratings powerhouse. When NECN launched in 1992 as a joint venture between Hearst and Continental Cablevision, Balboni intended to create a cable-only operation that could create the same serious journalism products as WCVB, the top-rated station where he spent the 1980s as vice president and news director.

Unlike WCVB, which offered only a few hours of news a day between network and syndicated shows, NECN would be all news, all the time.

As NECN expanded its audience in New England, reaching more than 3 million cable subscribers, the station became known for its political coverage, business news programs, and documentaries. NECN also became a destination for seasoned local broadcast anchors such as R.D. Sahl, Chet Curtis, and Tom Ellis.

But in recent months, some familiar faces have left or moved into reduced roles. Three longtime anchors — Beth Shelburne, Karen Swensen, and Sahl — recently resigned. Curtis was moved from anchoring weekday evening newscasts to hosting NECN’s Sunday public affairs shows. Longtime weekday morning anchor Leslie Gaydos is back to reporting and anchoring on weekends.

Two years ago, Ellis, a veteran of Boston’s network affiliates since 1968, was cut from NECN after 14 years of anchoring on weekends.

Ellis said the changes at NECN are not unusual. “It’s part of the natural progression of television,’’ he said. “It’s the nature of the business.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.

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