News Central Slims Down

Mar 20, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Rumors of the demise of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s News Central have been greatly exaggerated.

It is not dying, but rather evolving into an operation that will be crucial to building Sinclair’s digital and Web platforms, the company said.

“The essence of what we’re doing is not going away,” David Amy, Sinclair executive VP and chief financial officer, told TelevisionWeek last week. “We’re going to be using News Central as a backbone to launch and build our digital and Internet and convergent strategies. We believe they will play an essential role in the future of our business.”

Sinclair launched the News Central unit in 2002 to produce a single newscast that could be run on any of the 58 stations the group owns, operates or provides services for. It was designed to make newscasts possible for stations that could not otherwise afford them.

After this month, News Central will no longer produce a fully packaged newscast for its stations, but will continue to function as a clearinghouse that provides content feeds-in the style of the broadcast networks’ affiliate news services that collect and disseminate material from throughout the country-to Sinclair stations in 19 markets. Those stations produce a collective 360 to 370 hours of news programming each week and are expected to continue to do so, Mr. Amy said.

“They all have viable, profitable news operations. We want to improve their ratings. Part of that process is [accomplished] just by beefing up the stories and telling better stories and providing better reporting than we are today,” he said. “We can accomplish that by using our News Central operations. We have a lot of talented people here who have a lot of experience in television news.

“It is important that the stations produce very strong local news coverage. That’s their job, and that’s the most important thing we can do at the local level. We can’t lose sight of that, and we won’t lose sight of that,” said Mr. Amy, who doesn’t expect a downsizing of the News Central staff as it shifts gears.

Mr. Amy said Sinclair knew it was taking a risk when it launched the News Central format, which has become a whipping boy for local news advocates and for critics who disagree with Sinclair’s conservative politics and with the partisanship they perceive is reflected in News Central’s newscasts. The newscasts include daily commentaries by Mark Hyman, the group’s corporate communications VP and chief lobbyist.

“We knew it was a risk simply because of the viewer dynamics and the demo [associated with The WB stations, which aim at 18- to 34-year-old viewers]. We knew it would be quite a challenge, but we looked at it from the standpoint of, ‘How can we create an economic model and what kind of ratings do we need to get it to work?'”

In addition, he said, Fox Broadcasting’s increasingly powerful prime-time lineup means that “in most markets, we’re up against a strong Fox [station’s] news, with their lead-ins. Those two elements really worked against our model.”

Now News Central mandates will include support of existing on-air operations in the group, developing or identifying content for Sinclair’s digital platforms, which Mr. Amy said Sinclair has “spent some $150 million to $160 million building. That provides us with second channels on our digital platform.”

In a series of moves that Mr. Amy attributed to economics and unhelpful lead-in programming by The WB, all five of Sinclair’s WB affiliates plan to shut down their local news operations by the end of March. (Fourteen of Sinclair’s WB affiliates already do not air newscasts.)

KVWB-TV in Las Vegas discontinued its local news operation March 3 and has since announced it will air a newscast produced by Las Vegas NBC affiliate KVBC-TV, a competitor owned by Sunbelt Communications.

By letting local news teams go and shutting down the operations, the group could realize a savings of $5 million to $7 million this year, he said.