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David Smith: Sinclair’s Singular Visionary

He’s also been called brash, arrogant, Machiavellian, a maverick. He avoided joining the industry’s preeminent trade group, the National Association of Broadcasters, for decades but finally signed up a couple years back. He’s come under fire from media watchers for pushing consolidation and sometimes requiring Sinclair stations to run programming reflecting his conservative views. But one thing he’s never been accused of is being stupid.

David Smith’s wish list for the future of broadcast television is simple, just three things. “If I was going to wish for anything and I could snap my fingers and make it happen,” says the CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group, “it would be for an instantaneous final consolidation of the industry, the new television standards and then the over-the-air broadcaster being the dominant delivery system of all relevant media in the marketplace.

“That is absolutely doable.”

David SmithDavid Deniston Smith, 63, the public face of Sinclair Broadcast Group, has put a lot of time, effort and, yes, passion, into building the company and pursuing that wish list. Love him or hate him — and there are plenty of people in each camp — Smith’s impact on broadcasting is undeniable.

“David Smith has been a visionary,” says independent analyst and SNL/Kagan consultant Bishop Cheen. “I would put him in the John Malone category. He’s been good for the industry and he’s not done.”

He’s also been called brash, arrogant, Machiavellian, a maverick. He avoided joining the industry’s preeminent trade group, the National Association of Broadcasters, for decades but finally signed up a couple years back.

He’s come under fire from media watchers for pushing consolidation and sometimes requiring Sinclair stations to run programming reflecting his conservative views.

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But one thing he’s never been accused of is being stupid.

Many station groups are run by business people and financial experts. Smith just happens to be an adept — some say highly gifted — broadcast engineer as well. That elevates his list from the realm of wishful thinking to the art of the possible.

More than a decade ago, Smith was on a panel moderated by Victor Miller of Bear Stearns. He recalls Miller asking whether he’d like to be able to “talk” to devices that didn’t yet exist.

“I said I want to be able to talk to every device in the marketplace no matter where it is, or under what circumstances it exists,” Smith recalls. “I said it’s going to be essential that every broadcaster can communicate not only with his television programming but what could be a thousand other devices that we can’t even contemplate at this point in time.”

That is, in Smith’s view, the promise of ATSC 3.0, a new broadcast standard with the ability to reach mobile devices with a host of new services. It is why he was critical and deeply disappointed when the industry adopted what he believes was a deeply flawed standard in the 1990s.

It is also why he is pushing hard now. His tireless advocacy is gradually winning converts.

“Without ATSC 3.0, the vision gets narrower and narrower every day because of our inability to talk to devices,” he says. “The question is — it’s always been the question out of our mouths for last the 15 years — when are we going to wake up as an industry and and recognize that everything we lost is retakable?”

His job — building shareholder value in Sinclair — is what gets him up in the morning. “I look at it very simply as I have a job to do and I have a passion about what I do,” he says. “I have that passion and always have, which is why we tend to be more vociferous. I have a significant vested interest in the company and therefore in the industry.”

Ask Smith what he’d like his legacy to be and he dismisses the question as irrelevant. “I don’t think about a legacy,” he says. “It doesn’t mean anything to me. All I focus on today is what I’m going to be doing one year, two years, five and 10 years from now.”

This story originally appeared in TVNewsCheck’s Executive Outlook, a quarterly print publication devoted to the future of broadcasting. Subscribe here


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