Local TV's 'Death Star'Gets in Sync

Hunt Valley, Md.—Reclining deeply in a 5th floor conference-room office chair at Sinclair Broadcast Group headquarters just outside Baltimore, David Smith, president and CEO, wears the contented look of a man digesting a giant, satisfying meal. Having recently finalized two of the largest TV station acquisitions of the past several years, including a $385 million grab of Freedom Broadcasting, the formerly massive Sinclair group has grown larger still.

This is not quite the same David Smith that the broadcast industry has known for decades. Flush with a new batch of local news heavyweights, including KUTV Salt Lake City and WRGB Albany (N.Y.), Smith has—in the words of one Sinclair insider—“found religion” in terms of the role Sinclair plays in the U.S. media landscape. Couple those crack news outfits with what looks like an irreversible downward spiral for print media, and Smith feels Sinclair is in a prime position to make a significant impact in local news.

“As an industry, we have a completely different responsibility than we had 5 or 10 years ago, and that’s picking up the slack of newspapers,” Smith said in a wide-ranging interview with B&C. “The old days of investigative reporting of corruptionand vice is, for all intents and purposes, gone in print media. We have to pick it up and take care of it, because someone’s got to look out for the people.”

There is no more controversial station group, or group leader, than Sinclair and Smith. The company drew howls for years from the mainstream media, which charged that Sinclair’s on-air commentaries, distributed throughout the group from the home market—along with decisions such as mandating that its stations run a special that questioned John Kerry’s patriotism in advance of the 2004 presidential election, and preempting an edition of Nightline that showed the names and photos of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq—made Sinclair a mouthpiece of the far right.

More recently, the virtual duopoly strategy that is a cornerstone at Sinclair—the group has a new shared services agreement in Columbus, Ohio, among many other markets, giving it control of the Fox, ABC and CW stations there—has attracted the ire of media watchdogs who believe the practice flouts FCC rules.

While news may be viewed as something of an afterthought at some Sinclair stations, particularly the dozens that outsource it to a competitor, adding a batch of local powerhouses to its portfolio—not only KUTV and WRGB, but smaller-market monsters including KFDM Beaumont and WTVC Chattanooga—has given Sinclair a new profile. The group has been viewed by many as a “profit first, journalism second” broadcaster, but that perspective may be shifting.

“The stations they bought do not fit the model,” said one industry-watcher who asked not to be named. “Sinclair was seen as a sales and technology company, focused on costs and revenue. Now they are reinvigorated about news.”

And by recently joining the National Association of Broadcasters, Sinclair—long a lone wolf in the industry—has signaled its willingness to work with fellow broadcasters on common issues in Washington.

No Longer in the Crosshairs

Sinclair has given the left-wing watchdogs much less to work with in recent years. The contentious centralized news product, News Central, was scrapped six years ago. On-air commentary coming out of Baltimore has largely avoided controversy, unlike “The Point” segments from previous years. While he suggested the Sinclair stations are something of a corrective to a liberal media, Smith, sporting a bright red necktie dotted with American flags, insisted there’s never been a decision within the company to back away from partisan crossfire.

“We have a simple policy: Leave politics outside the door when you come inside. Do one thing—tell the truth,” the CEO said. “Our definition of down the middle is, here’s this guy’s view, and here’s that guy’s view. For others, it’s here’s this guy’s view five times, and that guy’s view a half a time.”

Some media watchers say Sinclair has indeed been playing it straight. “The last couple years, they’ve done a pretty good job of doing things down the middle,” said one impartial party in Baltimore.

With Sinclair’s exponential expansion, suddenly there are few more vital players on the local TV news scene than Scott Livingston, who was upped to the group’s VP of news in February. Livingston is a Maryland native and Sinclair lifer—the 47-year-old has been with WBFF Baltimore since 1991, and was named its news director in 2002. He now oversees Sinclair’s 41 newsproducing stations, “ensuring that each … is delivering high-quality, informative news stories that matter to our local audiences and make a difference in their respective markets,” according to a statement from the company.

To be sure, cost-consciousness remains a core value. Asked for the words that best describe a Sinclair newsroom, Livingston said, “efficient,” then “smart.” Lacking a bunch of legacy stations compels the group to try new things in an effort to produce “unique enterprise content,” he said. Livingston, like his boss, embraces the civic-watchdog role. “There’s an intense focus on government accountability in all our markets,” he said. “We look at it as a huge void in the marketplace.”

If Livingston can do system-wide what he’s done for WBFF, Sinclair’s reputation for local news will grow. David Zurawik, TV and media critic at The Baltimore Sun, said Livingston, who got his start as a photojournalist, has made WBFF stand out in a market with much better-funded competitors. “I have to admire what they’ve done here,” Zurawik said. “It’s always been the most visually innovative news operation in town. There’s a real commitment to being a strong news presence.”

Ordinary Name, Extraordinary Exec

It seems everyone in the TV industry has an opinion about David Smith. An informal poll of broadcast leaders elicited colorful descriptions such as “profound, and profane,” “mini-Murdoch” and “Darth Vader.” “Their style is to break china,” said one insider.

Yet most every description also notes Smith’s intellect and his two-fisted dedication to broadcasting.

Smith admited he watches little television, and insisted he is “no more liberal than the man on the moon.” He does not shy away from past controversies, such as the John Kerry documentary. “Let me be clear about something,” he said. “We tell stations what to run all the time.”

Smith agreed to a face-to-face interview on the condition that the dialogue focused on Sinclair, not David Smith. He cited numerous examples of being torched by dishonorable reporters. “My distrust of the media derives from a history of things that have happened to me that were clearly about absolute corruption and bias,” he said.

Sitting with Livingston and CFO David Amy in their headquarters, Smith relished defending Sinclair’s past, took shots at a favorite target in Washington regulators, expressed outrage at a court case involving a Muslim who was exonerated for assault after claiming Sharia law in his defense, and displayed his excitement about Sinclair’s future.

Managers at the group’s recently acquired stations seem intrigued by the new bosses. “It’s nice to be backed by a broadcaster,” said one. “They give you the resources you need to win. I anticipate great things with them.”

Go Your Own Way

Sinclair has long been known for doing things its own way, at times to the consternation of the greater broadcasting community. In February, its WXLV Greensboro (N.C.) introduced newscasts produced by Time Warner Cable, an exceedingly rare move for a broadcast license holder. And as the Fox affiliates board was toiling to hammer out a blanket affiliation deal with the network last year, Sinclair, and its 20 Fox stations, worked out a deal directly with Fox—effectively pulling the plug on the board’s plans for a proxy arrangement.

Smith does not apologize. “In a perfect world, you’re always better off having a collective group do a deal,” he said. “But just the mechanics of trying to put that together was very problematic.”

A framed poster behind Smith shows train tracks going off in different directions at a switch. Industry-watchers wonder if Sinclair has had a change of heart from its long period of isolationism after the group joined the NAB in February. Smith said the presence of CEO Gordon Smith and new chief technology officer Kevin Gage at the NAB got him on board. “For the first time in memory, there are two really serious people at the NAB who I think are capable of solving problems and getting things done,” he said. “We saw an opportunity when two guys like that step into a trade organization that, in my opinion, " oundered for 20 years.”

Sinclair’s inclusion in NAB is a major sign to broadcasters. “They’re becoming the leaders in the industry that they always should’ve been,” said one prominent local TV figure who asked not to be named.

Prepared to Get Bigger

Sinclair now reaches 26.3% of the 114.7 million U.S. households, according to BIA/Kelsey, leapfrogging the ABC-owned stations group for No. 8 on the list. The top 10 station deals from September to November 2011 totaled $856 million, and Sinclair accounted for $585 million of the total, according BIA/Kelsey,

Sinclair’s massive footprint gives the group extraordinary influence among lawmakers, as well as program suppliers. WBFF Baltimore, for one, grabbed Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! from Scripps’ WMAR beginning this fall—a testament both to Scripps’ desire to cut syndication costs and to Sinclair’s plans to give its stations every resource they need to compete. (Sinclair is also adding the two shows in Nashville.) Syndicators and rival stations express concern about the power the group now wields; one syndication biggie calls Sinclair’s rate of growth “scary.”

And Sinclair may not be done. On its earnings call Feb. 8, Smith said the group continues to seek acquisitions. “If we see opportunities, then we’ll certainly consider them the same way we considered Freedom and Four Points,” he said. “We’re prepared to get bigger if need be.”

TV stations, along with a security alarm company, real estate and a professional wrestling franchise, have made Smith wonderfully wealthy. Yet he is still clearly motivated to get up each day, make the cash registers ring and right some wrongs in the Sinclair communities. Asked about what spurs him, Smith replied: “The opportunity to make more money. Create a return for shareholders.”

His subsequent response reveals another side of the Sinclair chief. “Serve the public interest,” Smith added. “Every time you do something that’s of interest to the public, you walk down the street and people say, ‘I saw that, thank you, I’m glad you did that.’ That’s what news people get up for.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.