Big viewing gains at Sinclair Broadcast Group's digital multicast networks have the company looking to expand its portfolio, adding another network as soon as next year.
In the third quarter, Sinclair's Charge jumped 32% in total day among 35-to-64-year-olds and TBD was up 27%, the two biggest gains among digital multicast networks, according to Nielsen. Sinclair's third network, Comet, was up 9%, making it No. 5. TBD and Charge each registered gains of more than 30% in prime. Comet posted a 31% increase in access.
"Digital broadcast television is on the rise as new viewers continue to discover a broad range of free over-the-air digital TV networks," Adam Ware, senior VP of Sinclair's Growth Networks Group, said.
The gains came as the networks added distribution and improved their programming slate, adding popular series like CSI: Miami and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to their schedules.
Ware told Broadcasting+Cable that instead of hoarding shows for streaming, studios are now more interested in selling to third-party networks like Charge and Comet.
"There's a lot of options out there for shows and there's not a lot of places where we can put those shows. Maybe we need to launch a fourth network," he said.
Ware wasn't kidding. "We've been looking pretty hard at 2023. That would be a good time to roll out another one," Ware said.
Ware notes that some studios are considering launching their own channels, both over-the-air digital and free ad-supported streaming television (FAST), but said they're better off working with an established operator like Sinclair.
"We have the market size and the station footprint to be able to launch new networks," he said. And that's not even including the added bandwidth coming as ATSC 3.0 NextGen broadcasting ramps up.
"We're bullish on 3.0 and a big component of 3.0 is the ability to add more channels," Ware said.
The new programming brought Buffy the Vampire Slayer to sci-fi oriented Comet, CSI: New York to Charge, which has shifted its focus from action shows to police procedurals; and World's Dumbest for TBD, which airs a lot of quick-bite, internet video-style programming.
Sinclair also secured additional distribution for the networks and upgraded carriage on lower-numbered digital channels on stronger stations. For example, Charge moved to Nexstar owned WFLA-TV in Tampa on digital channel 8.2.
More than 13 million new households came online in June and another 2 million are expected to join by the end of the year.
Sinclair has also been adding carriage of its growth networks as FAST channels, giving them a multi-platform profile.
"The TV component is where the growth is," Ware said. "FAST is a complementary addition and something you need to have, but by no means is a driver of your business."
Viewers who have cut the cord or bought a stripped-down pay TV package are going to broadcast to find some of the sports, news and entertainment programming they’re looking for on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates.
"They scan and all of a sudden they start discovering stuff on digital broadcast networks and the quality of those networks have only improved," Ware said.
Sinclair stations and other affiliates have also stepped up their marketing. Ware said the networks didn't reserve ad time for promos until this year. Sinclair's strategy was to promote primetime. Primetime ratings rose, but other dayparts showed significant gains as well. Viewers were spending more time on the networks and coming back more frequently.
On Halloween, Comet will mark its seventh anniversary with a special Buffy watch party on Twitch. The series' acclaimed musical episode will be featured and James Marsters, who played Spike on the series, will join Buffy influencers on the stream.
Ware said that in test runs of Buffy watch parties 15% of the 18- to 34-year-old audience Comet normally gets came to the watch party on Twitch.
More programming is on the way to the Sinclair networks.
Comet will be adding Stargate SG-1, which had been the channel's most-viewed show when it launched as a joint venture with MGM, on January 16. Comet will also be airing episodes of The X-Files in daytime. Ware said there is less than 5% duplication between Comet's primetime and daytime audiences.
Other programming that will be coming online on Comet includes the Friday the 13th series, Tales From the Darkside and some Godzilla movies.
Charge will be getting Without a Trace and Elementary in March. More shows from the CSI franchise might also be finding their way to Charge.
Digital broadcast is becoming more attractive to advertisers than FAST at this point, Ware said. For media buyers, "these are networks they're used to and they have shows they know and they can bet on," he said. "These are known commodities to them and that’s a much safer way for them to get their impressions than to start spreading their money out among streaming services."
Digital broadcast now accounts for about 6% of viewing but collects only about 1% of total ad dollars, Ware said, which means the segment has a big opportunity to increase its revenues.
In the last upfront, the Sinclair growth networks saw increases in dollars committed and the number of advertisers buying in. New advertisers came from the pharmaceutical category, telcos and retailers.
"Advertisers are following viewers," Ware said. "That bodes quite well for this space." ■
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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.