Editorials garner buzz for Sinclair stations

Mar 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Sinclair was criticized when it canned news at some of its stations last year due to the recession-inspired ad sales slump. But it’s gotten virtually no ink on its effort to reach out to viewers locally: It is now the only company to broadcast editorials each week on its 62 stations.
Sinclair had planned to start running editorials early this year but instead launched them in mid-September in an effort to encourage the public to support the government in its efforts to wipe out terrorism.
“There were some news stories right after Sept. 11; an Indian service station owner in Arizona was shot and killed. We thought this would be a great outlet for viewers to express themselves in a nonviolent way,” Sinclair spokesman Mark Hyman said.
The campaign has been so successful the company will continue it indefinitely.
The editorials are written and anchored by Mr. Hyman in the studio at Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate WBFF-TV, Baltimore. After each editorial, he encourages viewers to e-mail him at their local stations’ Web sites. After his first editorial, he was surprised to receive 36,000 viewer responses within 10 days. Now he gets an average of about 600 e-mails per editorial from all over the country.
“Editorials are kind of a prehistoric creature in television-nobody really does them anymore,” Mr. Hyman said. “We’re surprised with the level of response we’re getting.”
Since Mr. Hyman posts his editorial scripts on stations’ Web sites, he has received e-mails from people in Canada, England and Germany. He reads every piece of e-mail that is meant for him, sometimes bringing it home and reading it till 1 a.m.
Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran said the RTNDA fought 20 years against the Federal Communications Commission rules that made it hard for stations to editorialize about political candidates and also made it impractical to endorse a candidate. Those rules were rescinded several years ago.
“Editorials are one way to bring a station in closer contact with the community, so something that facilitates that is a good thing,” Ms. Cochran said. “The RTNDA fought a long battle so that stations would have the right to editorialize about political candidates, and we hope stations will exercise this free speech.”
Initially, some Sinclair news directors met the idea of editorials with reluctance, but now with so much positive viewer feedback, most have come around. Most important, Sinclair stations are getting feedback from viewers that they never got before. One station, CBS affiliate WGME-TV, Portland, Maine, has done news stories related to some editorial topics.
“I have been talking about this for four years. We’ve never done group editorials [before]. I don’t know anyone [else] who’s done group editorials,” Mr. Hyman said. “If anything, they tend to be market by market. We don’t see anyone doing them anymore, and we thought it was to create an opportunity for our viewers to get more involved and to provide viewer feedback, to stimulate critical thinking.”
One recent topic Mr. Hyman chose to talk about was the fact that the Senate didn’t have time to vote on an economic stimulus package but had time to vote at midnight one night to approve a $5,000 raise for themselves. Another recent topic was the near total ban on issue-advocacy advertising 60 days before a general election and 30 days before a primary. Mr. Hyman’s take on it was that it is an infringement of First Amendment rights. He did it just before the Senate took its final vote on campaign finance reform, and he encouraged viewers to read the bill for themselves, the text of which was linked on Sinclair station Web sites.
Mr. Hyman strives to keep his editorials to 30 seconds long. They are aired on all 62 Sinclair stations, 31 of which now have news. Some of his editorials require more background, however, and are between two and 31/2 minutes long. These longer editorials air only on stations that have news because they are able to run sometime during the newscast.
Mr. Hyman, who is normally behind the scenes, has become somewhat of a celebrity in various Sinclair markets. He took a break for one week recently, and after he came back, a viewer who e-mails WGME after each editorial, wrote to the station, “It’s good to see Mark Hyman back at work.”
“It certainly gives us a bit more of a local identity in many of our markets,” Mr. Hyman said.
Some stations have asked him to do editorials specific to the market, which Mr. Hyman is considering.
In the past month, Sinclair has been tweaking the look of the editorials, adding graphics and changing camera shots.
Although Sinclair cut news at its stations, Mr. Hyman says there will come a time when the company will want to have news at every station again. “It’s been [Sinclair President and CEO] David [Smith]’s stated goal from Day 1 to have news at all of our TV stations,” Mr. Hyman said. He likened cutting news and eventually bringing it back to a baseball franchise that trades a player and two years later he returns to the team.
But for now, stations without news will have their editorials with Mr. Hyman as the Sinclair spokesman.
“We think we have a great opportunity to interact with our viewers and address topics that resonate well with the public,” Mr. Hyman said. “We’re still in the experimentation phase. Our plan is to settle on very specific time slots. We’re getting inquiries from viewers about when our next editorial is going to run.”
Mr. Hyman plans to take advantage of the Washington backdrop and may also do some editorials on location, such as at a local military base or on the steps of Congress.