Twenty five years ago, Ed Ansin found himself shut out of network television and scrambling to find a way for his Channel 7 station to hold an audience. He turned to an unlikely product: local news.
At the time, local newscasts were seen as fairly staid — heavy on anchors reading news, and stories on government proceedings. But Ansin’s WSVN had little left to offer after losing its affiliate contract with NBC, then the leader in prime time. Even worse: the station had no hope of jumping ship to ABC or CBS after losing its NBC ties on Jan. 1, 1989.
It had signed on with Fox, but the new player on the national television scene was only offering two hours of prime-time programming a week.
“We had to make some hard decisions,’’ Ansin, 76, said from his wood-paneled office at WSVN’s bay front offices in North Bay Village. “We really had few options.”
So Ansin and his staff set out to reinvent how South Florida’s television industry covered local news. By all accounts, they succeeded. Known in some circles as the “Miami Model,” WSVN’s mix of young anchors, crime-heavy broadcasts and live reports even when the breaking news was hours past helped bring Channel 7 enviable ratings and a blueprint soon followed by stations across the region and the country.
Now in its 50th year under the Ansin corporate umbrella, WSVN enjoys dominance of the local air wars when it comes to volume of news — with more than double the hours than its competitors.
“I don’t agree with the way they did it,’’ said Joseph Angotti, a professor at Monmouth College who once tracked local-news crime coverage when a professor at the University of Miami. “But you can’t deny they were breaking new ground.”
“They leaned heavily on crime, violence, car wrecks, maladies of any kind. But mostly crime,” added Angotti, a former a former senior vice president with NBC News. “Crime was their staple.’’
Derided as “if it bleeds, it leads,” the approach was blasted for hurting tourism, scaring viewers and generally degrading the public service from TV newscasts that once focused more on government proceedings and civic-minded fare. The profits from WSVN added to a fortune the Ansin family had already earned from South Florida real estate. Ed Ansin still routinely lands on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans.
For Ansin, history has been the best vindication for WSVN’s approach, though critics continue to bemoan the strategy. WSVN’s news model soon was the template for all local newscasts as more audiences warmed to the action-packed broadcasts. And it eventually rewarded Channel 7 with strong ratings and a business model that today has it selling more advertising time on local news programs than on any other offering.
Channels 4, 6 and 10 each air about five or six hours of local news per day, while WSVN puts out 14 hours worth, from the 4:30 a.m. morning broadcast to 7:30 p.m.’s Deco Drive, a saucy lifestyle show that may stretch the definition of news but does feature segments on local happenings.
Nielsen numbers shared by WSVN show its newscasts beating the competition during the February ratings sweeps — including the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. newscasts, when Channel 7 goes up against the Today Show and Good Morning America.