NEWS CENTRAL ANCHOR: Your Michigan news starts now.
TERENCE SMITH: It looks and sounds like any other local newscast around the country.
NEWS CENTRAL ANCHOR: Good Thursday evening. Two local police departments reaching out...
TERENCE SMITH: Anchor Jim Kiertzner delivers the area news for the first ten minutes -- Fox 66 News at 10:00 in Flint, Mich.
NEWS CENTRAL ANCHOR: Morris Jones has our story.
TERENCE SMITH: And then, along with the viewers, he watches 12 minutes of national and international news, reported and produced not in Flint, but at News Central, some 600 miles away in Hunt Valley, Md., a suburb of Baltimore.
News Central is a new and controversial approach to local news developed by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation's largest operator of independent television stations.
JENNIFER GLADSTONE: I'm Jennifer Gladstone. A kiss is just a kiss, right?
TERENCE SMITH: Seven nights a week, Sinclair broadcasts the same feed of national and international news simultaneously to its outlets in Oklahoma City...
ANCHOR: Thank you for joining us.
TERENCE SMITH: ...Las Vegas...
ANCHOR: And welcome to Gold 33 News at 7:00.
TERENCE SMITH: ...Birmingham, Alabama...
ANCHOR: Welcome to WB 21 News at 9:00.
TERENCE SMITH: ...Greensboro, North Carolina...
ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. Here's what's happening tonight.
TERENCE SMITH: ...And six other cities around the country. They plan to expand to many of their other 62 stations in 39 markets, most of which are affiliated with the WB, UPN, or Fox networks.
TERENCE SMITH: By centralizing -- they call it central casting -- portions of the news, the weather and sports from this state-of-the-art facility outside Baltimore, Sinclair achieves significant savings. Proponents see News Central as the future of local news in smaller and medium-sized markets.
MARK HYMAN, Vice President of Corporate Relations, Sinclair Broadcasting: News Central is a concept in which we were trying to find an efficiency that would allow us to put news on television stations that otherwise would not be able to operate news.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark Hyman is Sinclair Broadcasting's vice president of corporate relations.
MARK HYMAN: The lifeblood of a local newscast is the local news, and that's what's really important, and that's really what makes our news work so that each of these markets where we build a news operation, literally from the ground up on occasion, and staff it with professionals, we're collecting and reporting local news.
TERENCE SMITH: But critics, like Marty Haag, a veteran local television news executive, see it as a bottom-line-driven hybrid that is neither genuinely local, nor national.
MARTY HAAG, Broadcast Executive-in-Residence, Southern Methodist University: That tie between a local news operation and its audience is an essential tie that I think is certainly diminished, if not obliterated, by the News Central concept.
It's very hard to say that we are a local news operation when you have people in Baltimore, for example, deciding what national stories you are going to use in your broadcast.
JIM KIERTZNER: Here's what I know...
TERENCE SMITH: Jim Kiertzner is a 20-year veteran of Flint News who now fills three roles at the new WSMH news operation: Anchor, night managing editor and investigative reporter.
JIM KIERTZNER: This station, before a year ago, was the Fox station which was "The Simpsons" and the "Seinfeld" reruns and all those other shows, didn't have a news presence at all.
And so it was an education process in this market to teach people that, hey, we're Fox 66, we're on at 10:00, and we're in the news business, and we're playing for keeps and we mean business.
TERENCE SMITH: Barbara Roethler is the news manager for the station.
BARBARA ROETHLER: It has made our job easier in some sense, where we can truly concentrate on local news and that's what viewers want; they want local news. They want us to cover the local news, and that's what we're able to do.
TERENCE SMITH: But Flint Journal media writer Doug Pullen cites some problems with what he's seen in the first year of broadcasts.
He questions how a Sinclair newsroom can cover the local news as well as the competition with typically half the staff.
DOUG PULLEN: I don't think they get into the depth and detail of some of these things that their competition does. I don't like the idea of trying to get by on less like that. And you know, I think the local voice and the local character is what drives people to view you.
And to do it this way, you know, economically, it's probably a smart business move, but in terms of quality and personality of a product, I don't think it's going to work in the long term. They're going to have to modify it.
TERENCE SMITH: The blended, News Central broadcast with local and national anchors speaking from identical sets, can mislead the viewer, so argues Marty Haag, who now teaches journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
MARTY HAAG: I think that it's deceptive, period, simply, purely deceptive. The idea is that, I think, in order for journalists at a time where they're probably questioned more about why they did certain stories and how they arrived at a certain treatment, et cetera, et cetera, should be transparent and this broadcast certainly is not.
TERENCE SMITH: The local weather, for example, is not locally produced. Chief meteorologist Vytas Reid does the Flint forecast from News Central outside Baltimore.
VYTAS REID: Well, Jim, can you believe it? We did have a tornado that...
TERENCE SMITH: Reid stresses that most meteorological forecasting information comes from centralized data banks these days, and while he says his weather analysis is more important than his location, he does concede one drawback.
VYTAS REID: Of course, I can't look out my window like a good meteorologist should to make sure the forecast is correct, "Well, yes, it is snowing about there."
TERENCE SMITH: News Central national anchor Morris Jones says he occasionally hears from viewers who seem confused about where he is.
MORRIS JONES: They think I'm in Flint or they're happy to see me back on the air, and they're assuming that I'm there. They may think I'm on the air in Las Vegas or somebody may think that I've just moved to Pittsburgh, but I certainly write them back and say, "Well, I'm glad the concept is working." It's a seamless newscast.
TERENCE SMITH: Flint anchor Jim Kiertzner:
JIM KIERTZNER: I think all the talk about central casting and whether it's a good or a bad concept is an industry debate, and that's it. The people at home in this part of the state, in mid-Michigan, when they tune on the news, they get the news here, and that's all that matters to them.
JENNIFER GLADSTONE: Hi, everyone. I'm Jennifer Gladstone. Here's the latest from News Central.
TERENCE SMITH: On the day the NewsHour visited News Central and the Flint station, the 10 p.m. show led its national insert with a story about young women taking a stand on gay rights by kissing in school, followed by a spat between Britney Spears and the first lady of Maryland.
Then it was on to a story from Maine about a woman refusing to pay her taxes, followed by a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, a judicial nomination controversy, the sniper trial, and a Scott Peterson court update, a report about terrorism Web sites and the results of the previous night's unscientific, quick poll of viewers' attitudes on Iraq.
There was no news reporting on Iraq during that evening's broadcast.
MORRIS JONES: We find ourselves offering stories up that, from what I can tell the networks, it's either not "PC" of them to do or it wasn't in The New York Times.
TERENCE SMITH: News Central's approach to the news has been compared to that of the Fox News Channel.
MORRIS JONES: In terms of the everyman's news, the news for the common man, giving all sides a chance, covering news that's not politically correct, just throwing it out there, I would say there's a comparison with Fox except I think what we're doing is a generation beyond that because we're not ... we don't want to be identified with a particular party. The key is to just present all sides, be very fair, be very balanced.
MARK HYMAN: Network suits don't understand why they continue to lose viewers.
TERENCE SMITH: One of the nightly staples of the News Central diet is a commentary called "The Point" by corporate communications chief Hyman who labels his views as right of center. On this night, Hyman blasted CBS for its production of a Reagan miniseries, which it ultimately pulled from the network in the face of conservative criticism.
MARTY HAAG: You're fed a decidedly right-wing commentary over a variety of markets, and they seem to have even borrowed this notion of saying at the top of the broadcast that it's fair and balanced.
Well, what about the opportunity of having somebody who represents an opposing point of view every now and then?
TERENCE SMITH: Flint media critic Pullen agrees that he sees a lot of what he calls "generic sameness" to the national portion of the broadcast, but praises the local team's attempt to broaden their viewership.
DOUG PULLEN: They've kind of gotten a sense of who their viewer is. I think they've tried to target some people who maybe feel a little bit left out by the other stations, particularly people who are middle class to lower middle class, who maybe sometimes get overlooked. They're a little bit more "on the street" in some ways.
TERENCE SMITH: Sinclair executives declined to say whether News Central is yet profitable, but they do say they are currently testing an additional 11 p.m. broadcast in some markets which would expand their reach even further.