Sinclair Takes NewsCentral National

Housed in an attractive but otherwise unassuming building in the Baltimore suburbs, the Sinclair Broadcast Group is leveraging its size and advances in telecommunications technology to bring an integrated national and local news broadcast to its stations.
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HUNT VALLEY, MD.

The government and broadcasters made a deal: In exchange for a 6 MHz slice of the precious RF spectrum, broadcasters agreed to provide programming that is in the interest of their viewers.

One type of programming that is very much in the interest of viewers is news, but this presents broadcasters - particularly those not affiliated with ABC, NBC or CBS - with problem. Good-quality news broadcasts cost money and there is usually not enough to be made in small-to-medium markets to finance quality news efforts at independent stations.

Housed in an attractive but otherwise unassuming building in the Baltimore suburbs, the Sinclair Broadcast Group is leveraging its size and advances in telecommunications technology to bring an integrated national and local news broadcast to its stations. So far, only WSMH in Flint, Mich., is a full participant, but the company expects others to follow in the ensuing months.

"The company was looking for a way to provide news for a station - like Flint - that can't afford it," said Joe DeFeo, Sinclair corporate news director. "All the [Sinclair] stations, in some form or fashion, will be part of this."

Sinclair owns 61 stations, most in small and mid-sized markets. The company is investing in studio and production facilities at its local stations, matching this with a studio complex in its Hunt Valley, Md., headquarters.

The goal is to provide a one-hour news broadcast that is a mix of local and national news, weather and sports, all delivered in a seamless presentation.Although the national news, sports and weather will originate from the Sinclair headquarters and the local segments will be done locally, the viewer will see similar graphics and visual designs to give the impression of a single news source.

"It's seamless - the music, the graphics, the look - it all matches what we're doing," DeFeo said.

COORDINATION

Matching what happens in a local studio with what's provided by the Sinclair hub (called "SBG Central") requires a lot of coordination between the parent company and its group stations. Matching the graphic look while maintaining channel branding takes the sort of planning and infrastructure that only a large group broadcaster can provide.

"They're branding it locally but there's an overall branding called 'NewsCentral' that's part of this," DeFeo said. "It starts to make sense when we can provide news to multiple stations."

The NewsCentral hour begins with 10 minutes of local news. After a break, it switches to SBG Central for 12 minutes of national news. There is another break, followed in quick succession by a four-minute local news slot, a four-minute local weather slot (which originates at SBG Central), five minutes of national news, a six-minute sports break with local and national sports and a three-minute close delivered locally at the station. Commercial breaks of various lengths separate these segments.

WSMH in Flint was the first station to broadcast the entire NewsCentral hour, starting Oct. 28. In addition, three other Sinclair stations are using parts of the service and the company plans to roll out the NewsCentral model to several of its stations in the first quarter of 2003.

To make this work, new facilities were installed at SBG Central and staff is being hired to support the demands of a quality national newscast and multiple weather feeds. Should TV news professionals send their resumes to Sinclair? "Well... yes," DeFeo said with a smile.

The initial system buildout at SBG Central cost $6 million and consists of a news/sports studio, three weather studios and improvements to the graphics and promotions departments. Also included is an infrastructure that supports transmission of video and audio using satellite, landline and Internet connections. There is physical space for expansion as NewsCentral grows.

In addition, WSMH received a $2.5 million upgrade to provide local news that matched the NewsCentral look. Included in this is a digital infrastructure upgrade at WSMH.

INTERESTING EQUIPMENT

The SBG Central facility is fitted with some interesting pieces of equipment. The production switcher for the news studio is a Thomson Grass Valley Zodiak with 2.5 M/Es; the studio cameras are Thomson TK1707s and the audio mixer is a Wheatstone SP-8. All the TK1707 cameras in the system are fitted with Thomson's digital triax system, eliminating the need for multicore camera cables.

"This model of camera had the right quality at the right price," said Scott Parker, Sinclair engineering manager. "And the cameras are all 16:9/4:3 switchable."

The cameras are on Vinten manually operated pedestals and pan/tilt heads, and the studio also has robotic pan/tilt heads from Telemetrics. In addition, the cameras are equipped with Fujinon lenses and Q-TV prompters and software.

The studio uses Pinnacle Deko character generators that have a clip upgrade. Digital audio clips can be dropped in from the 360 Systems Digicarts and there are Doremi Labs V1x2 DDRs for video clips.

The newsroom has 12 Avid NewsCutter seats and about 15 Avid iNews seats. All the reporter workstations are connected through an Avid Unity server system, which in turn is connected via a WAN to the group stations.

The technical core of the facility has a Thomson Grass Valley Concerto router with a frame size of 128 x 128. Providing backup power for SBG Central is a 300 kVA Caterpillar UPS, which is itself backed up with a 600 kVA Caterpillar generator.

Satellite feeds to and from SBG Central are handled by Andrew, Prodelin and EASi dishes, which are connected to a mix of Tandberg, Wegener, Thomson, Scientific-Atlanta and Miteq encoders, modulators and upconverters. Walton de-icers reduce winter transmission failures.

PROMINENTLY FEATURED

Telestream ClipMail Pro devices feature prominently in the transfer of news and weather segments between SBG Central and the group stations. The local weather broadcasts are all done at SBC Central using Accuweather Galileo and Ross CDK-104 chromakeyers, then fed into the ClipMail Pro and sent over the Internet as MPEG files.

The videotape format used throughout the facility is DVCPRO, although there are some Betacam SP machines for compatibility with this still widely used format.

The SBG Central facility was built by AZCAR, a systems integrator located in western Pennsylvania.

Getting the NewsCentral broadcast up and working fell on DeFeo's shoulders.

"It's been a challenge and it's been a lot of fun," he said, "but I knew this could work."

Making it work technically was ultimately the responsibility of Del Parks, Sinclair vice president of engineering and operations.

"The application of this technology is reaching maturity," Parks said. "Fortunately, [Sinclair President] Dave Smith understands technology."

Company officials recognize that some advertisers buy time only on newscasts and this affects the revenue at many Sinclair stations. The goal of the NewsCentral project is to have competitive newscasts on Sinclair stations that do not now offer news.

"Without news, we could get only 70 percent of the advertising market," said Mark E. Hyman, VP of corporate relations for Sinclair Broadcast Group.

The rollout of NewsCentral to Sinclair group stations will be done at a slow, deliberate pace, with an eye toward maintaining the quality of the broadcast as additional stations are brought online. "In the first and second quarter of next year, you may see more rollouts," DeFeo said, pointing out that the WSMH in Flint would never have had a news broadcast without the NewsCentral concept.

Sinclair believes that serving its viewers by providing a quality newscast is not only good policy; it makes financial sense. To this end, the company is pushing both technology and challenging long-held belief that small-to-medium markets can't afford a quality newscast.