In Sinclair’s new OTT service, online streaming is STIRRed and may be shaken

Turning the newsroom into a “content room”

Users choose from among a menu of cities with Sinclair stations. (screenshot)

Adam Ware knows exactly when his love affair with local TV stations started. He was eight years old and visiting the set of the kids’ show Wonderama at Channel 5 in New York City. Ware remembers being fascinated — not by the show itself, but by everything that went into making it.

Cut to today. As GM of Sinclair’s newly launched streaming service STIRR, Ware is hoping to inspire local stations to binge on new production. If the plan works, it could touch off an explosion of innovation, creativity, and original programming from local TV newsrooms. The goal is to “expand the newsroom into a ‘content room,’” Ware says, “or to use an old-school term, a studio.”

When you sign on to STIRR, you’re asked to choose a city, and that becomes your STIRR City channel. This allows you to stream news, sports, and other local programming along with selected video clips from a nearby Sinclair station. If you live in one of the 71 Sinclair markets contributing channels to the service, you can see local news from your own city. Washington DC, “powered by” Sinclair’s WJLA, which has a good dose of national news, is offered as a default option. And Ware is looking for other news partners in markets where Sinclair doesn’t own a station — maybe even newspaper companies.

Ad-supported STIRR, which is available on the usual suspects — Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, mobile apps and online — has lots of non-local programming already. It’s a “skinny bundle” of 20 national digital networks, with a plan to add about 30 more content partners. STIRR features niche-y lifestyle, sports, and other entertainment — channels you may or may not know depending on your age and interests, like Buzzr (game shows), FailArmy (epic fail videos), MobCrush (mobile gaming), Dust (sci-fi shorts), Dove (wholesome family entertainment), and Pet Collective (you guessed it). There are also homegrown curated channels called Stirr Movies, Stirr Sports and Stirr Life. Buzzy financial-news service Cheddar has a channel, and the Daily Mail’s syndicated show pops up as well.

That may not sound like a Netflix killer, even with the attractive price tag — free. But what sets STIRR apart is the local content. In a clever touch, STIRR City is not just a set of on-demand clips and simulcast news programs from the stations. The hybrid channel weaves local content into a 24/7 linear feed curated by a Sinclair team in Santa Monica — a stream of programs filling the long gaps between newscasts and other original local shows, including the prime time hours. Think of the network affiliate model, with the local station taking over when it has its own content to offer.

We’ve reported here at the Knight-Cronkite News Lab on the growing number of local station forays into OTT, including Gray’s InvestigateTV — a streaming platform for the best investigative stories from Gray and Raycom stations and other partners — and CBSN New York, a 24/7 local news service that will expand to other CBS O-and-O markets.

STIRR is an ambitious addition to the roster, putting Sinclair’s stations squarely in the OTT game by offering a seamless way to stream their local news and other programs. The service aims at younger-skewing cord cutters, including those still sitting on their couches to watch TV. “They’re looking for a lean-back experience in the connected TV space,” says Ware. “How is a local broadcaster going to survive in an HDMI 2 world?”

STIRR is one attempt to answer that question. It still feels like the startup that it is, with relatively little local programming, especially if you don’t live in a Sinclair market, but the potential is exciting, especially if stations rise to the challenge of producing additional content for this expansive new platform.

That challenge is going to fall mostly on newsrooms, and Sinclair’s VP of News Scott Livingston says news directors are excited by the opportunity. “It can be a content lab where we can test new things,” says Livingston. “The sky’s the limit.”

For now, the sky actually is the limit. STIRR has launched a channel devoted to drone footage contributed by the stations, called SOAR — my Lab colleague Sarah Farrell reports on it here. But the real opportunity for STIRR City stations is to contribute to upcoming channels like the one based on the Sinclair investigative franchise Spotlight on America; to offer expanded news stories on demand on their own channels; and to incubate new programs. “In the future, newsrooms will be creating content almost 24/7 for every platform,” says Livingston. “The next phase is more tailored content for OTT. It’s an opportunity for a station to create content that might not have had a place on the traditional platform.”

You may remember our story on how news executives at Fox’s Philadelphia O-and-O responded to a demand for innovative programming ideas by creating The ClassH-Room, a game show pitting local high school students against their teachers that now runs as a weekday local strip on the station. Today, Ware and Livingston and their colleagues are also calling for new ideas from Sinclair stations, and the difference is that the best ones can “go national” on the service — either as a show or even a whole new channel — whenever the bosses think they’re good enough.

Is there a national news channel in STIRR’s future? Despite all the speculation about Sinclair’s interest in mounting one, perhaps as a challenger to Fox News, that doesn’t appear to be in the works at the moment. This could change, obviously, and the STIRR platform is tailor-made for it.

But for now, the emphasis is on compelling new local programs, and Adam Ware is waiting eagerly for another Wonderama moment to come his way.

Read more coverage of the STIRR launch from Variety, TechCrunch, Digiday and Forbes.

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And here’s one expert’s take on making the move to OTT.

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