Sinclair Over-The-Air Networks Add 14 Million Households Through Distribution Upgrades

Buffy Promo for Comet
(Image credit: Comet)

Now that digital over-the-air networks have proved to be a real business, just making them available in a market isn’t good enough.

Sinclair Broadcast Group said its digital broadcast networks — Comet, Charge! and TBD — will reach an additional 14 million homes by September through a series of upgrades and new affiliations in top 50 markets.

In addition to the larger number of households available, the deals make it more likely that viewers will find and actually watch the channels, Adam Ware, senior VP, Growth Networks Group at Sinclair, told Broadcasting+Cable.

Also: Upfront 2022: Sinclair Seeks 20% of Cable Budgets For Its Over-the-Air Channels

With the continuing wave of cord-cutting and the growing adoption of antennas, over-the-air networks are attracting additional viewers and ad dollars. In addition to Sinclair, big players in the OTA network market include E.W. Scripps, Tegna and Weigel Broadcasting. 

Networks like Court TV and MeTV ride on the secondary digital channels of TV stations.

“We did a real analysis to see, how do you grow these networks? What’s the next step?“ Ware said. ”And it goes back to the early days of broadcast. You need to be where the viewers are and fish where the fish are.”

In some cases, that means moving the network to a stronger station in the market, such as in Atlanta, where Comet moved from The CW affiliate WUPA on channel 69 to powerhouse WSB on channel 2. 

If a station’s main feed is on channel 7, an over-the-air viewer will find it on channel 7.1. Multicast channels will be on 7.2, 7.3 and so on. Ware said that to attract channel surfers, it’s advantageous to be on a lower number, closer to ABC or NBC programming. 

These upgrades have to be achieved on a market-by-market basis, using the same tools Ware used when he was signing up affiliates in the early days of Fox and UPN (later combined with The WB to become The CW).

Digital broadcast networks usually pay stations for carriage. The better the station, the more the network pays. Ware said Sinclair is trying to provide benefits to stations other than payment that will boost the value of the station’s spectrum, such as better programming and customized promotions. But he said that writing a check helps maintain a good network-affiliate relationship, unlike the big broadcast networks, which once paid their affiliates but now engage in reverse compensation, with the affiliates paying programming fees to the networks. Most affiliates aren’t happy with that arrangement.

In Portland and Providence, Charge! moved to stations owned by Sinclair. In both markets, the network has the dot-two channel position.

In Las Vegas, Comet moved to Sinclair’s KSNV-TV.

Any money the networks save by being on an “owned” station is offset by the revenue the station is losing from the network the Sinclair channel is displacing. 

Similarly, after Scripps bought Ion, it began to move its networks to Ion stations as existing distribution deals expire, in part to cut costs.

In some markets, getting on the right stations also means added distribution on cable. For example, in Boston, Comet moved from WSBK, a MyNetwork affiliate with no cable carriage for secondary channels, to Fox affiliate WFXT, which has full-market cable carriage.

In markets where no over-the-air signal is available, some of the networks are carried by virtual stations on cable, such as in New York, where Charge! is carried on channel 148 by Altice USA. 

Charge is also being carried nationally on Dish Network in homes with internet-connected set-top boxes, and on Dish’s Sling TV streaming TV service.

TBD moved to CW affiliates owned by the CBS station group in Atlanta and Boston, and launched in Indianapolis on Nexstar Media Group’s CBS affiliate WTTV. 

Also: ‘Planet of the Apes’ Marathon Brings Record Viewing to Sinclair’s Comet

Sinclair has also been upgrading the programming on the networks, adding Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Comet, CSI: New York to Charge and World’s Dumbest to TBD. Buffy drew 543,000 total viewers in its premiere, boosting the time period by 100%. CSI: NY opened with 348,000 total viewers, a 38% time period improvement. World’s Dumbest averaged 28,0000 viewers, increasing the time period by 4%.

“These dots allow these stations in many ways to be quite relevant in a cord-cutting world, beyond just their primary channel,” Ware said.

Meanwhile, Ware is in pursuit of more hot programming for Comet, Charge! and TBD.

”These are meaningful shows that we’re targeting and they’re available,” Ware said. ■

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.