Sinclair would use NewsChannel 8 to create a unique hybrid model for cable television news, blending national and international coverage with local news customized for each market.
But the channel's success is far from certain, broadcast experts say, and depends on many unknowns, including Sinclair's ability to persuade cable operators to carry the network and the appetite of viewers and advertisers for more news.
"It's tough getting a channel like that off the ground," said Michael Malone, deputy editor at the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable. "It will be interesting to watch. Launching a channel and actually having people watch it and have operators carry it are all different animals."
Sinclair, which announced plans last week to acquire NewsChannel 8, the ABC affiliate in D.C. and six other ABC stations from Allbritton Communications for nearly $1 billion, said it's well positioned to quickly launch the new venture.
As the nation's largest broadcaster, Sinclair would rely largely on existing resources — the national political news covered by the Washington ABC station and the local content generated by the TV news operations at 101 Sinclair stations in 71 markets.
"We believe there is significant value by coupling the cable channel with the rest of our news stations and rolling it out to more than just D.C.," Sinclair CEO David Smith said during a conference call with investors and analysts last week. "We can provide a unique customized local presence in our markets and the markets of other broadcasters" that could become partners.
The company's intentions seem clear, said Marci Ryvicker, senior analyst with Wells Fargo Securities.
"SBGI will syndicate the programming from Channel 8's current slate [national and international news and lifestyle programs] across its markets and infuse its market-by-market local broadcast news, creating the first hybrid national/local cable news channel," Ryvicker wrote in a report on Wednesday.
For Sinclair, among the most active players in the broadcast industry's consolidation, the strategy makes sense, Ryvicker and others said.
"Sinclair's been gobbling up lots and lots of TV stations," Malone said. "It's got these footholds all over the country now, so the idea of deploying a network with this great reach they have sounds like a logical next step."
Smith said the new channel could compete with well-known brands Fox News, MSNBC and CNN by incorporating what he envisions as a new twist, local news and other programs of local interest. He said he believes the expanded news channel could generate $300 million in additional revenue, based on the affiliate fee CNN charges cable carriers of 57 cents per subscriber per month.
Local news continues to be important to viewers, Smith said, and the audience ratings back that up, with ratings for programs on Sinclair's network affiliates typically outshining cable news.
"People really understand the relevance of local television [news] and the value it brings to the marketplace versus what cable news channels bring," he said.
The relationship between Sinclair's network affiliates in Baltimore and other cities and the cable channel could mirror the relationship between WJLA, Allbritton's ABC affiliate in Washington, and NewsChannel 8, said Douglas Gomery, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and broadcast economics expert.
The stations could share news teams and content, and cross-promote one another, Gomery said.
He believes Sinclair would develop local programming for the cable channel besides traditional newscasts, a program that focuses on local sports, for instance.
"What they have planned, I have no idea, but they didn't spend that much money to not have something planned," he said. "They have some idea of how to marry the two [channels] together that will make more money than simply repeats. They'll do what they think will make money."
Still, Sinclair has its work cut out for it, broadcast experts and analysts agreed.
The Sinclair channel launch would take place in a different era from the one that gave birth to CNN in 1980, Malone noted. Today's media consumers can be pulled in a hundred different directions, with cable and network TV channels, video games, social media and websites all vying for time and attention.