Changing the channel: Ed Ansin

Area native redefined Boston’s TV news
By  Pamela  H.  Sacks


BOSTON — A reporter stepped inside Ed Ansin’s office in Miami, took a look at the decor and declared: “You ought to live in Maine.”

That was several years ago. Nowadays, Mr. Ansin is prone to recount the moment with a quick laugh. Reserved and given to long, thoughtful pauses, Mr. Ansin allows that his personality and style are better suited to New England than to South Florida, where he lives much of the time.

Not everyone would agree, but the landscape has surely changed since 1993, when Mr. Ansin’s purchase of WHDH-TV, Channel 7, raised howls of protest in the Boston area.

Channel 7, which had been mired in third place, quickly climbed in the ratings and began to dominate the 11 p.m. time slot. Soon, other newscasts found themselves having to adapt to Mr. Ansin’s arrival in the market.

As it turned out, Channel 7’s new owner did, indeed, have a pretty good feel for New England.

Perhaps that should not be much of a surprise, since Mr. Ansin’s earliest roots lie in Worcester and the towns to its north.

In a recent interview at WHDH studios, Mr. Ansin described himself as a private person, but added, “I’ve lived my life in a fishbowl for quite some time.”

A fishbowl? You might say a raging sea.

James Thistle, who is head of the broadcast journalism program at Boston University, recalled that the changes at WHDH sent shock waves throughout Boston’s conservative news media.

“They shook up the market with flashy graphics and high story count,” said Mr. Thistle, who served as news director at all three Boston stations at one time or another before Mr. Ansin arrived on the scene. “They were after younger demographics, and they succeeded.”

Mr. Ansin, for his part, noted that tastes and trends are fluid, and that this may have accounted for some of his success. But even WHDH is not immune from such forces. By last spring, he said, its newscast needed a facelift of its own.

In response, Mr. Ansin, 65, and his team made some moves that touched off a round of bad press.

One of the most prominent changes was the departure of popular anchorwoman Kim Carrigan, whose contract was not renewed. Subsequently, a Boston Herald columnist reported, among other things, that Channel 7 insiders viewed Mr. Ansin as a ruthless egomaniac.

He threatened to sue, but said what he really wanted was an apology. Herald owner Patrick Purcell later announced that the matter had been settled.

In the interview, Mr. Ansin suggested that he viewed Mr. Purcell’s statements as an apology and decided to drop the whole thing.

“I said, `I’ve had enough of this. It’s not much fun.’ ”

In the fall, the management canceled nearly all of the public service programming, enraging community activists. Mr. Ansin attributed the decision to tough economic times and a dated, 1970s format out of sync with today’s viewers.

“What we didn’t realize was how popular `Urban Update’ was,” he said, referring to the weekly minority affairs program, which had aired for 23 years. “When we were told, we determined how to do it more efficiently. We were able to reach a compromise.”

The station reinstated a scaled-down version of “Urban Update” and folded several programs focused on minorities into the one show.

Mr. Ansin, whose fortune is estimated at $800 million, is nothing if not a study in contrasts.

In certain circles, he is better known for his philanthropy than for his media enterprises. He has made million-dollar donations to the United Way, and is the only person to receive the organization’s Alexis de Tocqueville Award in three cities — Miami, Boston and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He gave Emerson College $1 million to build a state-of-the-art broadcast studio, and he and his brother, Ron Ansin, gave a cool $2.6 million to the Boys & Girls Club of Boston. Those familiar with Mr. Ansin’s charitable activities say he also gives anonymously and is generous with airtime.

Edmund N. Ansin was born in the former Memorial Hospital in Worcester and spent the early years of his childhood in Athol, where his father had a sizable shoe factory on Main Street. The family also had another factory in Fitchburg.

By the time he was 5, his father had entered the real estate business in South Florida, and the family spent winters there. He went to prep school in Andover and on to Harvard College, where he quickly became bored. His real interests lay in business and finance, so he transferred to Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a degree in economics.

By 1962, his father had entered the media game and won a license for WSVN-TV in Miami. He installed his son as executive vice president, and Mr. Ansin’s lifelong fascination with television began.

It was in the 1980s, when the station had lost its network affiliation and was fighting for survival, that Mr. Ansin and his staff came up with the hyper, crime-driven news approach that became known as the “Miami style.”

“I’ve got to say, those early newscasts at SVN were bloody,” Mr. Thistle remarked.

Later, fears that Mr. Ansin would introduce a newscast in Boston with the same shock effect would prove unfounded, but he did set the agenda for a shorter, punchier, livelier report.

“The Boston market is not Miami,” Mr. Thistle said. “The news is not quite the same.”

Meanwhile, the genre evolved, even in Miami.

“If you look at SVN today, it’s still big on breaking news, but you don’t see the same sort of thing as back then,” Mr. Thistle said.

By 2001, the format was no longer new, even in staid Boston. Network newscasts, too, had adopted a similar pace and look. WHDH ratings were stagnant, a reflection, in Mr. Ansin’s view, of a newscast gone flat.

“We could not be static for five years and appeal to the audience,” Mr. Ansin said. “There are all sorts of options vying for viewers’ attention. We were not progressing.”

WHDH revamped the newsroom, beefed up the assignment desk to cover more live news and added a 4:30 p.m. newscast to the lineup to catch viewers too busy to tune in at 5 or 6.

Mr. Ansin described WHDH programming as “a brand of product,” defined by reporters who aggressively cover news with a “succinct, energetic, appealing” manner.

Caterina Bandini apparently fit the mold. She was tapped for Ms. Carrigan’s anchor spot, and the station touted her years of experience covering Boston and her on-the-spot stories from Kosovo.

Ratings improved, and viewers stayed tuned throughout and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Ansin, nonetheless, continues to have his share of detractors, who insist he lowered Boston’s journalistic standards. In Mr. Thistle’s view, the Boston stations and those in many other cities, with their longer, in-depth stories, would have been forced to change in any event.

“As the teens who grew up on MTV have matured, they have a shorter attention span and an inclination to use the clicker the minute they get bored,” he said.

Mr. Ansin watches carefully over WHDH, spending several days a month in Boston, where he has a condominium in the North End. He is no workaholic, he said. He works regular hours and takes weekends off. He would like to buy another TV station, but said one in the top 20 markets is rarely for sale.

While in Massachusetts, Mr. Ansin often visits his brother, Ron, who lives in Harvard, and a niece and three nephews, who live in Lunenburg and Sterling.

In Miami, he splits his time between his real estate development business and WSVN. The father of three grown children, he has been divorced for 16 years. His sons, Andrew and James, are in business with him. His daughter, Stephanie, is connected with the theater in Manhattan.

In his free time, Mr. Ansin enjoys swimming in the heated pool at his condominium in Miami Beach. But he also spends time at the movies — less for pleasure than for business, it seems.

He goes to action films and observes the pace and special effects, which, he said, carries over to all of television, particularly the news.

“One of the things about TV,” Mr. Ansin said with a smile; “It forces me to think young.”