By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
5:32 PM EDT, July 29, 2013
You have to admire the financial muscle if nothing else of Baltimore's Sinclair Broadcast Group.
How many companies in Baltimore can pony up just under a billion dollars and become headquarters to a high-visibility Washington media institution like WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in the nation's capital?
That is what happened Monday with the $985 million Sinclair paid for eight Allbritton stations including WJLA (Channel 7) and the D.C. 24-hour cable news outlet NewsChannel 8. (Read the Sun's news account here.) The company now owns, operates or helps manage 149 stations reaching 38.2 percent of the country, by its estimate.
Here are five things I consider worth thinking about as Sinclair moves up into bigger journalistic and political leagues with this deal. They are based on two decades of watching Sinclair operate.
1. WBFF (Fox 45), the Sinclair-owned station in Baltimore. consistently delivers some of the best investigative, enterprise and government watchdog journalism in Baltimore and Maryland.
(You can read one of my pieces here about the way one of its investigative teams righteously dogged Baltimore's City Hall last year over contracts for IT services and consulting).
That's something you won't hear about from advocacy bloggers and talking heads on the left. They offer a simple-minded, black-and-white critique of Sinclair as a right-wing ideology machine.
But, as a journalist who prides himself on being down the middle, I am here to tell you that the news operation does some very good work.
Think of it as a mini-Fox-News. Sean Hannity is right-wing crazy almost every night of the week. But Washington-based correspondents like James Rosen and anchors like Bret Baier are delivering the journalistic goods.
2. Sinclair's conservative orientation is no secret. The company has long backed conservative candidates and causes.
And, as a result, Sinclair management does do some stuff that might be considered, well, hinky.
You can read two pieces here and here that I wrote about a series of robocalls that the company made to Baltimore and Maryland households voiced by WBFF anchorman Jeff Barnd asking residents for their views on Lyme disease, same sex marriage and the job Maryland's Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley was or wasn't doing. The Lyme disease was the come-on to make it seem non-political.
The question is whether its newly-acquired Washington muscle is going to tempt management into surrendering to its worst ideological tendencies -- letting politics trump its journalism.
"To buy a full-blown news operation in our nation's capital and an infrastructure that allows us to be connected to our branches of government and be at the pulse of national issues is a once-in-a lifetime event," said David Smith, Sinclair's president and CEO, in a statement.
It's how closely they get "connected" that worries me. The TV press should "connect" with the various branches of government only to the extent that it helps in aggressively covering them on behalf of citizens and viewers.
But whatever the extent of its connection turns out to be, Sinclair is a Washington player in a way that it wasn't last week.
3. Don't get carried away with the talk of a national cable channel for Sinclair.
Smith directed a lot of attention to NewsChannel 8 with this statement Monday:
"We are especially excited to acquire the NewsChannel 8 local news channel, not only for the content it can provide our existing news stations, but moreover because their regional cable presence provides the perfect platform should we decide to expand it into other markets, especially given the amount of local news we produce across our entire portfolio."
Some media analysts are predicting a 24/7 all-news cable channel for Sinclair.
There will be one, but it's not what you are probably thinking -- the next Fox, CNN or MSNBC. In fact, most of its content might not even be on cable.
For all the money Sinclair has spent and all the clout it now has, it does not have guaranteed cable carriage from this deal. Just because Sinclair has a 24/7 news channel doesn't mean Time-Warner will carry it. Ask Al Jazeera America about that.
Sinclair will have a 24/7 news channel, but it will use it to program portions of the day on many of the smaller broadcast stations it owns and manages.
That's just the kind of thing that impresses Wall Street analysts. Instead of paying huge syndication fees, Sinclair can program the news off its cable news channel in Tulsa, say, from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays -- with maybe just an hour of local news in the mix. That's economies of scale writ large. Same thing from 5 to 7 a.m. and mid-day.
4. Sinclair knows how to make money -- make no mistake about it. The Hunt-Valley-headquartered company has some of the smartest managers in the country, like Bill Fanshawe, the general manager of WBFF in Baltimore and 17 other Sinclair stations by my last count. I would like to see what Fanshawe does with WJLA.
5. The real story of all the stations Sinclair has purchased in the last year is in the enormous power it now has in determining political TV advertising in battleground states. From Ohio, to Pennsylvania and Florida, Sinclair is there, and when the candidates come running with their bags of money to blitz the TV airwaves in state, Congressional and the presidential campaigns, they will be coming to Sinclair among a handful of other mega-station-groups.
Don't make me laugh with talk about federal regulation. The station groups will control those last-second buys, not the toothless bureaucrats in Washington.
One last thought: How long have analysts been saying TV is a dinosaur medium?
Long term, yes. But short term, there's a still a lot of meat on Dino's bones -- $985 million worth for just eight stations.
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