Sinclair, Gannett & Seattle’s Exceptionalism

Disclaimer: This blog is pure speculation on my part. I have no inside information or any real insight to the discussions happening “in the room” at the corporate entities of which I speak. I write this to stimulate discussion. I don’t think blogs are very good at telling readers that we’re sometimes just pulling a lot of our copy out of our, uh, hats – and that no reporting is taking place. SBG Logo


So as I sat in the Paramount Theater admiring my single shiny Emmy for Northwest Now (KBTC-TV) at NATAS’ June shindig in Seattle, I couldn’t help but wonder how many Emmys the KING/KIRO/KOMO triumvirate must have won over the years.

Then I wondered about Murrow’s (RTDNA) and NPPA and all the other industry groups that also hand out shiny awards and various station-of-the-year accolades.

All three stations could probably fill a Costco with their award-swag. And deservedly so.

But at the same time, while watching them haul-in the hardware, I also wondered if the people sitting around those tables that night appreciated what “had been” in this market, and what is likely coming.


Out here in our little corner of the United States, when it comes to television, we’ve grown accustomed to watching some of the best TV stations in one of the best TV markets in the U.S., whether we know it or not.

Strong local ownership (not always a guarantee of quality) and a culture of excellence permeated the big three here right from the get-go. I’ll let you speculate as to why it happened to happen here. The Bullitts, the Fishers and even Queen City/LDS (Murrow was a shareholder) cared a lot about quality and public service – and it just sort of stuck.

Despite its relatively small size, Seattle became a “destination” market. Stations recruited and paid in the promise of quality work, stability, and the lure of a once-fabulous Northwestern lifestyle. When a new anchor was thought to be the solution to ratings woes, station poobahs took the prospect on a boat ride.

So Seattle TV stations were typically filled with overqualified people. College degree holders with five years at the station ripping scripts and crewing live shots as grips – very talented people who could never get on full time – that kind of thing.

There were very senior people on assignment desks and producing. Field crews included photogs, sound techs, field producers, reporters and a liver driver and maybe even an engineer. Advancement was slow and the competition to get into the market stiff.

Back in the day, each station took its turn at the top of the pile with news staffs off-and-on numbering more than a hundred, news jets, news boats, special units and international travel.

When ownership blinked, the occasional crackpot news directors was indeed allowed to come through town and lay waste to key staff and implement the often meaningless musings of out of town consultants.

But that wasn’t the norm here.

Overall, Seattle was right up there with other mid-market bellwethers recognized for quality like Minneapolis and Denver.

Still is – still is.


So now we have Gannett slated to own KING, and Sinclair KOMO.

The cubicle jockeys at Gannett and Sinclair know nothing about this market’s tradition of quality. In fact, they would likely put quality in quotes, like this: “quality.”

Gannett lives in Virginia and Sinclair in the Baltimore area.

I lived east of the Mississippi for 15 years, and the fact is that Seattle isn’t on anybody’s mental map of where important things are. Seattle’s perception of where it stands in the world is much different than the perception of rest of the world – and it will be essential for the worker bees here to comprehend that as they struggle to understand what’s happening.


Over time, research shows that TV stations owned by newspapers tend to do better at producing quality news products. Belo started out strong as a broadcast operator, but over time faded in step with its underlying newspaper business as funds were shuffled around to keep struggling business units alive.

But even so, there was a tradition of quality and service at HQ in Dallas visible at both the Morning News and WFAA – the group’s hometown blowtorch TV property that spawned a lot of TV news leadership over the years. Belo couldn’t maintain the pace as the newspaper business blew up, but despite the layoffs and circulation scandals, at least part of the underlying ethic at Belo supported public service and quality.

Now, as I look at Gannett’s portfolio, I see a number of stations traditionally considered to be high quality producers of TV news. But layered on top of that is this: among the newspaper crowd, Gannett has always been considered to be a bit of a red-headed stepchild because of USA Today… the publication frequently blamed, fairly or not, for dumbing-down newspapering. And, the same pressures that ate Belo are attacking Gannett’s underlying business too – even as it struggles to diversify away from newspapers.

Some have argued that newspaper chains are getting out of buggy whips just in time to buy Edsels. I disagree, but that’s another debate.

One thing Gannett can bring to KING however is Dave Lougee who happens to be Gannett’s President of Broadcasting. Despite being the other party in one of the most awkward conversations I have ever had with another human being, Lougee “gets” this market. He was the big cheese at KING and then at Belo. He knows what KING is and what it stands for. He knows about the tradition of excellence here.

He has vowed to keep stations in duopoly markets independent (via sidecar holding entities and at great expense) and maintain standards and accountability in the stations and markets into which they are entering through acquisitions.

That’s a high bar in Seattle, but the good news for KING is that Lougee knows what that means.


Sinclair on the other hand is a horse of another color.

In the interest of full disclosure, I cashed a lot of Sinclair paychecks and am thankful for the role the company played in providing me the opportunities I had between 1989 and 2001.

With that said however, Sinclair is not known for obsessing about producing award-winning local news.

Sinclair’s model involves producing a lot of news, inexpensively.

Let the other stations buy the big talent, swallow the expensive syndicated lead-ins and throw cash at big promotional budgets.

Sinclair will be a happy number three or four, but will focus on margin and thus likely be the most profitable TV station in the market since it has a major affiliation AND cheap news – which regional and national buyers like.

What this means for the rank-and-file is a further speedup of the assembly line.

The TV news sausage factory is already fast with the advent of extra hours of newscasts, extra channels, Facebook and Twitter feeds and breaking news on the web.

Sinclair is going to take that, and notch it up again.

Adding newscasts and platforms to re-purpose content is cheap. It’s like an airplane. If it’s not flying, it’s not making money. Same for anchors or reporters: if you’re not reading a script on a newscast (cable, web, broadcast, digital channel – wherever) or filing a story, you’re not making money.

So KOMO might expect single anchor shows, multiple new newscasts including Sinclair’s plans to operate a national/regional hybrid 24 hour news channel, the loss of aviation, a re-thinking of special investigative and long form teams, a possible move of the physical plant, a sale of the radio properties, and aggressive negotiations when contracts are up for renewal.


KOMO may well cede being competitive from a ratings perspective and will likely replicate its core TV business model based on high volume and low costs.

I guess KIRO will just keep being KIRO. I really don’t have a theory about Cox. They are the most Sinclair-like station at this juncture – but with ratings-strong CBS – which is a good thing.

That means that ultimately, KING may be in the best position to remain what it has been. I certainly don’t foresee staff sizes returning to their high water marks or lots of big investment, but at least they’re owned by a company traditionally invested in journalism (“such as it is” some might say a la USAToday) – and have at least one advocate in upper management who knows who they are and how they, and the market in which they operate, are a little different.

KING also has a strong regional network of regional stations that it has leveraged into NWCN which may become an increasingly important asset.


I think Sinclair will bring almost certainly bring a lot of political controversy to the market (Seattle really hasn’t comprehended who Sinclair is yet) – and probably a lot of changes to the on air product.

But with long-standing business models in flux as content distributors and content creators battle over revenues, web-only programming becomes a reality, and station spectrum is sold and re-shuffled by the FCC – the only sure thing for any of our local stations is change.

It’s always been that way in TV, and Seattle’s exceptionalism may be drawing nigh.