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STIRR Fills Sinclair’s Pot With Hybrid Linear, On-Demand Approach

STIRR, the big swing at an online service by Sinclair Broadcast Group, came into much clearer focus this week, with CEO and President Christopher Ripley detailing its hybrid business model and local-first focus in an interview. The company also announced key members of STIRR’s leadership team.

STIRR, set to launch in January, is Sinclair’s online news and entertainment service that Ripley first briefly announced during an October industry conference. Now, as part of Sinclair’s new-platforms division headed by long-time cable-TV executive Scott Ehrlich, the service will be a pivotal part of the big broadcast TV chain’s transformation into a technology company, Ripley said.

“A big part of our strategy is about going beyond the TV,” said Ripley. “That’s what’s at the core of what (new digital-broadcast tech standard) ATSC 3.0 is about: mobile-first. It’s about reaching personal devices, tablets, smartphones, mobile devices. That’s our focus for the next generation (of audiences) here, how we develop new content.”

To help make that vision a reality, the company announced three executive hires this week: former Paramount and Fox TV exec Adam Ware as general manager; former Watchable Executive Editor Stacie Anthony as editor in chief; and Ben Lister, who has worked for Newsflare.com among other media startups, as director of content acquisitions and business development. Ware also heads digital media and business development for the Tennis Channel, which Sinclair also owns. He will continue in that role.

STIRR will be largely based in Santa Monica, with some technical staff based in Seattle.

The real key, however, will be connecting the 20 to 25 percent of American audiences who regularly use over-the-air TV to STIRR’s online, on-demand content, while also expanding Sinclair’s reach among digital audiences ahead of the ATSC 3.0 rollout over the next couple of years.

To get there, Ripley said STIRR will differentiate itself with a local focus and an unusual hybrid business model.

“STIRR (version) 1 will be the best version of what we can show on a streaming basis,” Ripley said. “It will include news and syndicated content, and be a unique offering.”

Broadcasting TV companies logosSinclair’s 191 stations in 89 markets reach about 40 percent of the U.S population. STIRR users will be able to see news and other local content from the Sinclair station in their own backyard. Otherwise, they can pick the closest station or a generalized news feed.

“It will have localized channels for everywhere,” Ripley said. “That’s what makes it unique. All that local content is available that really hasn’t been put in a package like STIRR.”

That local content will include “a cadre of sports, general entertainment, special interests.” Ripley said. “I would guess 20 to 30 new channels are coming on. It’s not just a one-trick pony.”

“Topicals,” programming such as talk shows on public affairs, entertainment and the like, will be another part of the offerings. Programming will be available in a linear, ad-supported form similar to traditional TV, but will also offer ad-supported shows on demand, Ripley said.

More and more ad-supported services are popping up, from indie aggregators such as Tubi.TV, Xumo and Pluto.TV to the Roku Channel, a similar offering  coming from Amazon and YouTube’s plan to make its original programming ad supported by 2020.

STIRR eventually will add a premium subscription tier, Ripley said, as it develops a large enough audience to include a subset of ardent fans willing to pay for premium, exclusive material.

“There’s going to be a robust offering that’s ad supported, and then we’ll up-sell into more premium programs,” Ripley said. But first the channel has to launch, and begin finding that audience, no easy task for all the companies trying to find a niche.

“I think we’ve got a great shot,” Ripley said of STIRR’s approach. “But the model to me, if you’re just going to be chasing a subscription base like Netflix did, you can’t succeed. That’s why it’s a sea of blood (in SVOD).”
 At the same time, he emphasized the company’s plan to move beyond those traditional roots. Ripley sounded almost wistful about one failed effort to expand, trying to buy Tribune Co. This week, on the day I talked with Ripley, Nexstar announced it would buy Tribune for $4.1 billion, plus another $2 billion in debt.

“They won, at $46.50 a share,” Ripley said simply. “I wish them well, and (am) happy to see them win the option.”

Sinclair’s effort to buy Tribune for $3.9 billion stalled last summer amid government opposition over antitrust issues. The Nexstar deal, if approved, would leapfrog Nexstar past Sinclair as the nation’s biggest broadcast chain. But it too will face stiff regulatory scrutiny that will likely complicate the deal’s closure. Regardless of the fate of that deal, Ripley said he expects further consolidation in the sector.

For its part, Sinclair is bidding on 22 regional sports networks involved in Disney’s $71 billion acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox. Because of antitrust issues, Disney must sell off the networks, which would fit nicely with Sinclair’s focus and existing Tennis Channel ownership.  Sinclair also owns wrestling promoters Ring of Honor and part of sports network Stadium.

“Those are in most cases the most-watched programs in any system,” Ripley said. “It’s interesting: if you went back 20 years, you’d see that entertainment programming regularly out-rated sports. Since then, sports continued to increase in appeal. Now sports dominates the ratings chart.”

He reiterated his belief that the broadcast industry shouldn’t be classified as a separate sector from other companies in the business of delivering video.

“The notion of a separate broadcast space is totally antiquated,” Ripley said. “We’re competing with the diversified media companies, we’re competing with the telecom operators,  we’re competing with the Internet companies. We’re all in each other’s spaces. We’re all customers of each other. We’re all competitors with each other. One of my mandates at Sinclair is to take the company out of the TV broadcaster mindset to (become) a diversified media company with a technological bent. That’s our space. We’re not in the broadcast space.”