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.
Even with ad dollars down from a recession and an increasingly segmented media market, news remains a profit center for local stations across the country — making the strong ratings particularly sweet for Ansin some two decades after he was forced to bet big on news.
“It was disparaged, but the viewers liked it,’’ Ansin said during a recent interview. “We certainly were covering fewer meetings and other institutional type of news, and more news of interest in local communities — be it crime or other events of the day.”
Local news wasn’t Ansin’s first choice to anchor the channel’s schedule. In the 1980s, network news still dominated the national audience’s attention, and was seen as crucial to drawing viewers to a station’s local newscasts, too.
But the real loss of a network affiliation meant the empty broadcast hours that independent stations typically were forced to fill with reruns and movies. That meant ratings obscurity, unless Ansin and his staff could come up with a way to compete with network offerings.
“They had no programming,’’ said Mitchell Shapiro, a longtime communications professor at the University of Miami who now runs the program’s honors offerings. “But they had a huge news operation. They decided: Let’s expand the local news. They did it, and it worked.”
In Miami, WSVN’s crime coverage drew the ire of the vacation industry. Angotti’s UM study at one point found almost half of WSVN’s newscast was devoted to crime. At least 10 hotels blacked-out Channel 7 from their television line-ups, and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau warned the televised reports were going to scare off foreign visitors.
“Channel 7 sensationalizes the crime,” Tim Brigham, spokesman for Doral Ocean Beach Resort, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in a 1994 article. “It’s the way they take a crime story...the way they follow a trail of blood up to the body.”
As Channel 7’s local-news audience grew, the station’s early affiliation with Fox was paying off. The network fielded a string of hit shows, and gradually expanded its prime-time offerings to compete with what was then known as the Big Three networks. The big coup came in 1993, when Fox bid $1.6 billion to take away NFL games from CBS.
Ansin didn’t know Fox would be a savior when he was contemplated broadcast life without NBC. In 1987, the Peacock Network told Ansin it wanted to buy its own station in Miami and would be dropping Channel 7 in favor of Channel 4, then a CBS affiliate. That set-up a fairly easy Plan B for Ansin: switch to CBS.
Freed from NBC, Ansin had the only strong signal up for grabs in the Miami area. And while CBS wanted to take advantage of changes in federal broadcast rules allowing networks to own stations, Channel 7’s station reach seemed too valuable to pass up for a market as lucrative as Miami. An affiliation with WSVN seemed inevitable for CBS.
But CBS stunned the local television industry by purchasing WCIX’s Channel 6, whose signal was considered too weak to be a suitor for a major network. The decision left WSVN with no network and no obvious way to keep an audience. Analysts at the time cut the station’s $200 million worth in half.
The setback would have been a major stumbling block for a family empire that began in shoes and evolved into real estate but got the most attention when it entered Miami’s broadcasting industry.
Ansin’s father, Sidney, got his start with a string of shoe factories in Massachusetts. The family vacationed in Miami Beach, and the up-and-coming area caught the elder Ansin’s attention. He soon bought 1,000 acres of farmland near Hallandale Beach, the start of a real estate empire that now includes a Miramar office park that is one of the largest in the region.
Both Ansin sons entered the family businesses — Ron taking over the Massachusetts shoe operation and Ed the real estate operations in South Florida. The South Florida operation eventually included Channel 7, which Sidney acquired in 1962. When the elder Ansin died in 1971, Ed took over the station.
For the last several decades, Ed Ansin has routinely landed on Forbes’ annual list of the wealthiest people in America, snagging the No. 377 slot in the most recent ranking with an estimated fortune of $1.2 billion.
Though WSVN’s livelier broadcasts were popular, they also set the station up as a target. When Ansin moved to purchase a station in Boston in the early 1990s, former governor Michael Dukakis went public with his concerns over the future of broadcast journalism.
“The Boston Herald ran a feature story on us titled ‘Good and Evil,’ ’’ Ansin said. “It was very en vogue then to say how terrible Channel 7 was going to be.”
Ansin brought his Miami news director, Joel Cheatwood, to Boston to reproduce the successful, controversial formula in Ansin’s home state. A Boston Magazine profile in 2001 summed it up the pair’s legacy way: “What they created was the now-familiar Miami-style news: frenzied, crime-obsessed, live-via-satellite coverage reported by pretty, young faces.”
Two years after buying WHDH, Ansin and NBC reunited again. Amid a shake-up in Boston’s television line-up, NBC found itself needing a local affiliate. Ansin agreed to be NBC’s station in Boston, rejoining the network that had dumped him in Miami.