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NECN hopes changes, HD click with viewers

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / January 16, 2010

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New England Cable News this week received its first makeover in a decade as it prepares to do what most of the nation’s TV stations already have done: broadcast in high definition.

On Monday, New England’s 24-hour news channel will begin broadcasting in HD, which provides a sharper picture. To kick off its new era, NECN this week updated the station’s logo to include a silver swoosh, replaced maroon and gold on-screen graphics with ones that have flashier blue and silver hues, and began using a new weather tracking system that provides richer map details. It’s the network’s first major aesthetic overhaul since 2000.

“It’s the next step in the evolution of NECN,’’ said Bill Bridgen, general manager of NECN and sister station Comcast SportsNet, who began overseeing NECN when Comcast, which had owned half of the network, bought the other 50 percent from Hearst Corp. in June. “The objective here is to be the source of news for all of New England.’’

The decision to broadcast in high definition is one in a number of changes that have taken place since Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, took full ownership. Since June, Bridgen has been implementing changes to make both stations more competitive in the New England marketplace. Last month, Comcast SportsNet introduced a live 30-minute show called “SportsNet Central’’ that airs on both channels seven days a week. Bridgen also hired a station manager, Stacey Marks Bronner, who had worked at Fox affiliates in Miami and Chicago, to help run NECN’s operations.

Broadcasting in HD has been a slow process for NECN, which is playing catchup to other stations in the nation’s seventh-largest TV market. For years, local stations have been broadcasting in high definition, which makes the news shows’ anchors look more vivid against colorful backgrounds.

In 2007, WCVB-TV (Channel 5) became the first Boston station to broadcast in HD. WHDH-TV (Channel 7) and WBZ-TV (Channel 4) followed in 2008, and WFXT-TV (Channel 25) joined the HD crowd last year. (WCVB and WBZ also use the TruVu weather tracking system that NECN adopted for its forecasts.)

“They needed to jazz it up,’’ said Robert Zelnick, a media professor at Boston University, about NECN’s on-air look.

Comcast is spending more than $1 million on NECN’s HD upgrade. The transition to HD has provided NECN with new cameras and the updated graphics, as well as adding another channel, 810, where Comcast subscribers can tune into the newscasts in HD. “Being in the high-definition lineup will open up a new set of viewers, which will hopefully increase our viewership,’’ said Bridgen.

The competition for viewers is stiff in New England, and NECN is a small player. In the November sweeps ratings period, for instance, NECN’s morning news program at 5 a.m. averaged 4,000 total viewers, while WCVB led with 49,500 viewers, followed by WBZ with 35,000, according to the Nielsen Co., which tracks ratings. At 6 a.m., NECN had 11,000 total viewers, while WCVB won the hour with 85,200 viewers and WHDH finished second with 76,700.

But drawing a head-to-head comparison between NECN’s ratings and those of other Boston broadcasters is perhaps unfair because the bulk of NECN’s programs are back-to-back newscasts, which people tune in and out of throughout the day. Since it doesn’t have a national network affiliation or syndicated programming, NECN serves as its own lead-in for its newscasts, with lifestyle shows such as “TV Diner’’ or news opinion programs such as “Broadside: The News with Jim Braude.’’ And unlike the free, network-affiliated broadcast stations that reach more Boston-area households, NECN is a cable outlet and requires a subscription.

“We do want to compete with the broadcast networks, but the challenges are what they are,’’ said Skip Perham, a spokesman for NECN and Comcast SportsNet. “We want to be the top choice.’’

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