After years of buying and selling, the nation’s largest TV station groups have become local leviathans that own dozens of outlets across the country.

At an unsettled time for broadcast TV, the biggest independent groups — including Nexstar Media, Sinclair Broadcast Group and E.W. Scripps — are increasingly trying to generate new profit sources by using local news and programming assets in innovative ways.

Station owners are looking to capitalize on the fallout from cord-cutting, which has swelled the number of American households that watch free over-the-air TV without a cable subscription. Smart TV sets have made it much easier in many regions for viewers to access local broadcast channels the old-fashioned way while still seamlessly switching between local outlets and apps such as Netflix and Hulu.

“We believe strongly that over-the-air will continue to grow with younger people, the cord-cutters and the cord-nevers who recognize their ability to watch free over-the-air broadcast television right alongside whatever platform they’re also signing up for,” says Adam Symson, president and CEO of Scripps Co.

At the same time, erosion in the traditional pay TV marketplace means lower retransmission consent revenue that stations receive from MVPDs, which is another im­petus for owners to get creative with their existing assets. Station owners are also chasing bigger advertising deals with inventory that can be sold on a quasi-national basis. Moreover, bigger and healthier station groups by definition have more clout to negotiate affiliation terms with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW.

Yet another catalyst for the range of activity among local broadcasters is the fact that the TV station landscape overall has shrunk. There aren’t that many big acquisitions that can be made by groups the size of Nexstar and Sinclair. Nor are there many high-value stations left up for grabs after more than a decade of steady wheeling and dealing toward regional consolidation among station owners.

“There are limits on how much more Nexstar and Sinclair can acquire,” says John Janedis, media analyst with Wolfe Research. “There is a realization there that there are a lot of national ad dollars and there is an audience that is increasingly viewing free-over-the-air as opposed to being part of [a pay TV bundle]. That bundle is losing 6%-8% of its subscribers a year. If you’re a company that has been reliant on that bundle, you’re looking for ways to span your reach and expand your advertising.”

Nexstar on Sept. 1 launched “News Nation,” a three-hour primetime newscast on its WGN America cabler that draws stories and resources from Nexstar’s 190-plus TV stations, which stretch from Los Angeles to San Angelo, Texas, to Burlington, Vt.

“News Nation” has been a big gamble for Nexstar, as it replaced primetime entertainment programming on WGN America.

But it hasn’t been a huge financial risk for the station group, given that much of the material is derived from work already done at the local level. Nexstar built out a 14,000-square-foot studio in the WGN Chicago building and hired on a few dozen journalists to handle the national broadcast and its companion app, which delivers round-the-clock headlines.

The news initiative was most important to Nexstar as proof of a concept the company hopes to build on significantly in the coming years. “We’re reinvesting the money that we would have spent [on programming] contracts into this ‘News Nation’ product and additional products we may sell down the road,” says Sean Compton, Nexstar’s exec VP of WGN America, WGN Radio and director of acquisitions.

Sinclair is planning a headline-driven morning news program to debut early next year on more than 60 of the company’s 190 stations that will originate from Sinclair’s WJLA-TV Washington, D.C., station. Like “News Nation,” Sinclair’s still-untitled 6-9 a.m. program will draw on news and human interest stories produced across Sinclair’s wide footprint.

In January 2019, Sinclair launched the STIRR ad-supported free streaming service that also aggregates news, sports and local fare from various Sinclair markets. Even Fox’s O&O group has taken to recycling some locally produced programs mixed with a handful of originals for the ad-supported streaming service Fox Soul, aimed at Black viewers.

“This is all a five-year defensive play for broadcasters,” says media analyst Daniel Kurnos with Benchmark Company. “They’re trying to gain from national scale. They’re trying to benefit from better retrans negotiations and better negotiations with networks. All of that protects their cash flow.”

Last month, Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co. bought Ion Media, a TV station owner based in West Palm Beach, Fla., for $2.65 billion in cash. Ion stations are typically low profile in their markets, but the company as a whole enjoys massive profit margins (upwards of 50%) by running acquired drama reruns (think “Blue Bloods,” “Law & Order,” “Criminal Minds,” “Chicago, P.D.”), movies, court shows and other low-cost fare.

Scripps intends to keep things status quo with Ion, which generated revenue of $587 million and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $335 million. But over the long term, one of the reasons Scripps went after Ion was a bet that there is unlocked value in the Ion TV stations purely from the spectrum bandwidth they have as licensed commercial TV stations. The U.S. broadcast TV sector is in the midst of a transition to a new broadcasting standard — known in wonky terms as ATSC 3.0 — which promises to one day open a new world of data- and information-delivery capabilities to local stations. That could involve everything from hyper-local news and weather updates to supporting addressable advertising technologies.

“We think there will be new business models developed around data-casting and advanced advertising,” Scripps’ Sym­­son says. “New forms of programming will come to bear. We intend to take a leadership role not only to create value to our investors but to bring these products to America.”

Symson and Nexstar’s Compton emphasize the importance of looking to fill programming voids in the marketplace and to attract distinct niches. In other words, you can’t just throw a bunch of previously produced news segments together and expect to draw a crowd. “News Nation” was designed to play to WGN America and Nexstar’s stronghold of viewers in the Southeast and Northeast who are in the market for straightforward headlines, not opinion shows, as the Big Three news cablers deliver in primetime.

Compton notes that “News Nation” has served up more comprehensive coverage of the raging wildfires in the West because it has so many reporters to pull from in affected markets. He also points to the ongoing focus of “News Nation” on storm-driven natural disasters in Louisiana.

“When we say we want to super-serve America and the heartland, we mean it,” Compton says. “We’re not just there for the day to get some images and split.”

Symson notes that the ballast provided by Ion stations “opens up a tremendous number of paths for [Scripps] to continue in a leadership role in journalism and broadcasting.”

Making those investments is hard at a time when local TV advertising has been hammered by fallout from the pandemic, although the record political dollars that are raining down this election cycle underscore why investors still like local TV, with all of its challenges.

“These [stations] have got to figure out a way to slow that loss of reach by growing in other areas,” Janedis says. “In some ways everyone’s using a similar playbook.”