"2020 has been an outstanding year for the service," answers Adam Ware, vice president and general manager of national networks and platforms at Sinclair. "I don't like saying there has been a positive side to (the coronavirus pandemic), but since March streaming television experienced tremendous growth and STIRR in particular definitely benefited with over four million downloads and overall viewing drastically increasing."
Within weeks after the pandemic became widespread across the nation, viewership to STIRR, through a variety of connected TV devices -- including Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV, -- increased 300 percent.
Ware attributes this to STIRR's mandate to feature live, local and familiar content choices as an alternative to all the new national choices now available in the fast-booming marketplace of OTT TV-distributed services. "In today's streaming wars, viewers are asked to navigate through a sea of new brands and unknown TV shows, where local is not at the heart of their strategy. Trusted local TV station brands and their programming – especially live local news and top-rated syndicated TV shows – are proven programming franchises and have been absent from national streaming wars…until now. STIRR connects viewers with streaming TV from their local TV stations. For free."
In STIRR's bailiwick, that outlook is shaped in three ways, all free and ad-supported. There's a collection of more than 120 linear channels, including Sinclair-owned networks— Comet, Stadium, Charge and TBD - and established 3rd party OTT brands like FilmRise, People TV and Newsy. There is even a new locally originated network called the Horse Shopping Channel, where viewers can learn all about different types of horses and buy them on the spot.
The package's flagship channel is the STIRR City channel, customized by market. The format is a blend of live, local newscasts from a Sinclair-owned station, local sports and event coverage, and programming acquired from other sources, arranged by daypart. More than 70 Sinclair stations around the U.S. are involved with STIRR City.
Video-on-demand represents the final element of STIRR, presenting more than 6,000 hours of content per month. In this manner, viewers can see individual local newscasts or community events, free movies and TV shows, along with the latest episodes of top syndicated series, from Judge Judy to Wheel of Fortune.
Over the course of 2020, STIRR introduced a number of temporary "pop-up" linear channels to its package, also customized by area. One is 2020 Live, devoted to unfiltered, opinion-free live presentation of political events, whether the recent Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates to local town hall discussions and press conferences. Another, Covid19 News, is a roundup of local news coverage and regional/national programming on the pandemic, emphasizing original reports from Sinclair stations.
In quick order, both 2020 Live and Covid19 News have become second or third-ranked in viewership, depending on the location. "Live news events in real time without commentary or opinion was not being done and these pop-up channels filled that void," Ware adds. He foresees life for these channels post-election and when the pandemic ends. "Both of these channels have tapped into audiences' desire for unfiltered coverage of live news in real time. That format translates on the local level as well."
Ad sales for all three aspects of STIRR is "scaling quite nicely," according to Ware. While others experienced revenue declines provoked by COVID-19, as advertisers reduced their spending during the first half of 2020, STIRR maintained a steady sales pace, thanks to increased viewership.
For 2021, Ware predicts the multi-channel package to top off around 150 channels, and in some markets, bring in unique linear nets created by advertisers such as the Horse Shopping Channel. There are many local brands that are rich with content not benefiting from the growth in OTT TV, he believes. There's also opportunity to craft separate multi-channel tiers catering to African-Americans, Latinx and other demographic communities.
Other 2021 expansion elements include content partnerships with other TV station group owners, increasing circulation among smart TV set makers and introducing the top syndicated series currently available as VOD to the local STIRR City channel linear schedule, based on Sinclair station affiliation with those programs.
At some point, next year or beyond, there will be new options for STIRR generated by the rollout of NEXTGEN TV technology among Sinclair and other station groups. "The idea of delivering a bundle of content and services that are live, localized, targeted as well as on-demand is something we expect to be able to do on steroids," concludes Ware. "In many ways, STIRR is testing future NEXTGEN TV business opportunities today."
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