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Centralcasting on the move

Jan 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Sinclair Broadcast Group’s big, bold entry into centralcasting will likely be a litmus test for local television. Sinclair, which operates 61 stations in 39 markets, introduced its News Central project last fall. The multimillion dollar effort to centralize news, weather and sports at many of its stations accelerated over the past weekend.
Centralcasting as a concept is not new, nor is centralization. Many station groups have centralized some portion of their operations during the past few years, such as traffic, master control or graphics. What is different about the Sinclair project is the scope and scale of it. Sinclair is one of the first station groups to centralize news. Its efforts will be closely watched by the industry and other stations considering centralcasting.
The centralcasting project should cut local news costs in half, said Del Parks, VP of engineering and operations for Sinclair. News Central, Sinclair’s $6 million facility at its corporate headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md., includes three news studios and three weather studios. News Central has a staff of 30, including two news anchors, two sports anchors and four weathercasters.
WSMH-TV, the Flint, Mich., Fox affiliate, became the first Sinclair station to carry a newscast with portions emanating from News Central when it launched its first newscast in October. International and national news as well as sports and weather originate from News Central, while a news staff in Flint produces the local news. “To produce that newscast in Flint would cost a lot of money,” Mr. Parks said. “That’s why we don’t have news in a lot of our small markets.”
The WSMH set in Flint is nearly identical to the News Central sets; that creates a more seamless look, and will be the model for other stations that launch news.
Starting the weekend of Jan. 25, Sinclair was scheduled to begin centralcasting weekend weather for Fox affiliate KOKH-TV in Oklahoma City, WB affiliate WLFL-TV in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., NBC affiliate WKEF-TV and Fox affiliate WRGT-TV, both in Dayton, Ohio, and Pittsburgh Fox affiliate WPGH-TV.
Speeding things up
Sinclair has accelerated its rollout plans over the past several weeks to begin converting these stations more quickly than originally expected. In addition, Baltimore’s WBFF plans to launch a new 11 p.m. newscast this week that will be centralcast. Sinclair had planned to launch the new newscast in about a year but based on the early success of News Central decided to move up the date. News Central will allow Sinclair to add more newscasts to other existing news markets.
News Central uses Telestream’s Clip Mail Pro devices to send video to Sinclair’s stations, reducing satellite time and lowering bandwidth costs, one of the most expensive components of centralcasting. News Central also has and uplink if the centralized portions need to go live. News Central is largely designed to allow Sinclair to offer news in its 20 markets that don’t have a local newscast. “It lowers the barrier of entry to get into the news business, and we think the product is as good or better than what it’s up against,” Mr. Parks said.
Sinclair also plans to convert portions of many existing newscasts to News Central, as it has done with weekend weather at Fox affiliates WUHF-TV in Rochester, N.Y., and WBFF-TV in Baltimore. The stations will convert more news elements to News Central this year. In addition, Sinclair offers daily weather inserts on its WB station WTTO-TV in Birmingham, Ala.
Most of the news directors contacted were unavailable for comment. However, coverage of news from a central location has been viewed in the industry with some skepticism since local news directors are often loathe to surrender any control of their news. Turf wars have been commonplace between stations and their owners.
If news directors are wary of handing over some responsibility, they don’t have much recourse, said Joan Van Tassel, author of “Centralized Broadcast Operations,” a book on centralcasting. “I don’t think the local people will have much to say, because they don’t have a base of power,” she said.
Mr. Parks said Sinclair’s stations should be able to produce better local news since their focus will be strictly local. He pointed out that weather coverage, for instance, doesn’t need to be produced locally, since Sinclair’s weather data comes from AccuWeather. The only difference between a locally and a centrally produced weather report, he said, is that the weather person can’t walk outside and see whether it’s raining, nor can he or she engage in “happy talk” with the anchor on the set.
Despite Sinclair’s enthusiasm, centralcasting news hasn’t been embraced by the industry. The Ackerley Group centralized some of its news in upstate New York before it was purchased by Clear Channel Communications last year. Most centralization efforts revolve around business operations, like The New York Times Co.’s centralization of master control three years ago. Syndicated programming, commercials and promotions reside at the eight stations in the group, but control of that content comes from a central point, said Frank Chebalo, who oversees engineering for the group and is also president and general manager of the group’s CBS affiliate WTKR-TV in Norfolk, Va.
Centralcasting news, however, is not on his radar screen. “There is something to be said for producing local news in a market and [a newscast] that’s made up of local talent,” Mr. Chebalo said. “I believe weather and sports are an extension of that. I would be concerned if you break too much of that up; you might lose the local image. [However] if it’s a normal weather day, then maybe you can go to a central weather feed.”
Any discussion of centralcasting needs to address the dynamics between the stations and the group, he added. There may be some friction between local news directors and corporate, but that’s inevitable when stations give up some news control.
“There is that natural human tendency to push back on things like that. On the other side, we as an industry face the reality of increasing competition from cable, satellite and more stations. We really don’t have a choice but to continue to find ways to be more efficient. So I believe we will see more experiments of centralcasting news,” he said.#
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