Sinclair Rethinks News Mission

Station group will revamp its controversial centralized service
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Sinclair will eliminate newscasts on all of its WB stations by the end of the month, including those in Milwaukee, Tampa., Fla., and Buffalo, N.Y. (all affected stations will switch to My Network TV stations in September). News Central, based outside of Baltimore, will cease producing live news and instead focus on supplying news packages on national stories to Sinclair stations, much like network affiliate services.

“It was a very solid product, but, at the end of the day, you're up against a very competitive market,” says Sinclair CFO David Amy. “There were not enough viewers to support the economics. It was good, but not quite good enough.”

The cancellations are a culmination of several months of cutbacks. Last summer, several Sinclair stations reduced their newscasts from an hour to 30 minutes, and others dumped news altogether. In August, Sinclair's duopoly in Greensboro, N.C., WXLV and WUPN, dropped newscasts. “We were on the air two years and doing 1 ratings. The audience had voted,” says General Manager Ron Inman. WXLV, an ABC affiliate, is getting better ratings with Frasier reruns.

In February, the station group's Cincinnati WB outlet, WSTR, announced it would drop news. By the end of March, WB affiliates in Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Tampa, Raleigh, N.C., and Buffalo will have followed suit.

Since its inception in 2002, News Central has been a hot-button issue in the local-TV industry. The Hunt Valley, Md.-based operation simulcasts news, sports and weather to affiliates, which provide their own cut-ins. Most of Sinclair's stations utilized the News Central content, but its WB newscasts relied heavily on the feed.

But using centralized news, critics say, stripped stations of their localism. Maryland-based weather forecasters, for example, may not understand the complexities of lake-effect snow in Buffalo or hurricane season in Florida. “Too much of the news came from a place where none of the viewers live,” says TV-news consultant Valerie Hyman. “It was like dumbing down a newspaper.”

Says Frank N. Magid Associates VP Bill Hague, “Viewers were told these were local newscasts, but it didn't pass the smell test.”

By canceling the newscasts and reformatting News Central, Sinclair will free up millions of dollars. In Birmingham, Ala., for instance, The WB outlet WTTO now contracts CBS affiliate WIAT to produce its news, reducing station expenses by $1 million. Sinclair says eliminating news in Greensboro saved the duopoly $500,000 last year.

Several Sinclair outlets are, in fact, outsourcing news to another station. Next month, KVWB Las Vegas will debut a newscast produced by NBC affiliate KVBC, featuring the NBC station's anchors and reporters. In January, Fox affiliate WPGH Pittsburgh replaced its 10 p.m. news with a product supplied by NBC affiliate WPXI. Such partnerships, local-broadcast executives say, allow a station to maintain a news presence and reap the ad-sales benefits without the costs of staffing, equipment and production.

But canceling and outsourcing news has cost dozens of staffers their jobs. In Tampa, about 20 positions have been eliminated; in Pittsburgh, about three dozen staffers were forced out. At News Central, employees have been told they will not face layoffs, but staffers are jittery. Amy would not comment on possible cuts.

In a few markets, Sinclair is actually expanding its news offerings. Fox stations in San Antonio and Charleston-Huntington, W.Va., have recently added local morning newscasts. The company is also developing its digital broadcast channels, starting in May with a new digital channel for WBFF Baltimore that mixes local programming, sports and classic TV shows. News Central may produce content for the new digital channels and stations' Web sites.

Sinclair says it will continue to supply its stations with its controversial editorials, called The Point, by VP of Corporate Relations Mark Hyman. The segments have been another flashpoint in local markets, derided by media activists as ultra-conservative and not reflective of local issues and sensibilities.

“We will continue to provide a point of view,” says Amy. “It is a very important element to our company.”

E-mail comments to aromano@reedbusiness.com

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