Sinclair Touts Programming Benefits if Tribune Deal Is Approved

Sinclair Broadcast Group’s programming options would be greatly enhanced if the FCC and Justice Department approve its pending $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media, Sinclair stated in an FCC filing late Thursday.

Sinclair gave a glimpse of its plans for the enlarged station group in the filing that came in response to the FCC’s request last month for more information on the transaction. Sinclair is waiting on approval from the FCC and Justice Department to complete the merger agreement reached in May.

The combination of Sinclair and Tribune would create the largest TV station group in the country by a wide margin, with more than 200 stations reaching some 72% of U.S. TV households. Sinclair undoubtedly will have to divest some stations to comply with existing FCC TV station ownership limits.

Sinclair has hired investment bank Moelis & Co. to canvas the marketplace for prospective buyers for stations. But the filing notes that Sinclair won’t move forward on station sales until it has feedback from the Justice Department. There are 10 markets that have already been identified as troublesome given that Sinclair and Tribune both own top stations, including Seattle, St. Louis and Salt Lake City.

Sinclair critics argue the company will hurt the overall marketplace for local news by eliminating a competitive newsgathering operation in many markets.

“Sinclair-Tribune’s response to the FCC is full of vague promises, incomplete answers, and unpersuasive evidence.  They do not come close to providing adequate justification that their mega-merger is in the public interest,” read a statement from the Coalition to Save Local Media, a group of Sinclair opponents that includes Dish Network, the American Cable Association, One America News Network and media and consumer watchdog orgs such as Public Knowledge and Common Cause.

Sinclair in the filing cites its experience in San Antonio, Texas, where its recent acquisition of a second station in the market led to the creation of a joint newsroom. Both stations (KABB and WOAI) increased the volume of local news carried by two and a half hours a week, and the broadcasts were tailored for different demographics. Ratings for both “increased substantially,” Sinclair said.

Sinclair vowed to invest more in investigative reporting and to replace hours now devoted to informercials with locally produced news and public affairs programming such as Tribune’s “Morning Dose” program. Opponents of the merger call that spin to win favor with regulators.

“Sinclair-Tribune’s promises of investing more in local news ring hollow given Sinclair’s history of gutting local newsrooms at stations they acquire and forcing their stations to air ‘must run’ segments produced at their Baltimore headquarters. The truth is this merger will stifle localism and hurt an independent diverse media,” the Coalition asserted.

There’s been much speculation about the prospect of Sinclair launching its own national network on the back of its enlarged footprint. CEO Chris Ripley has flatly denied any plan for a national news network. But the filing emphasizes that the enlarged Sinclair will be a more attractive partner to the creative community. And Sinclair will have more leverage with content owners.

“Besides bringing new original content to viewers – for free on broadcast television, unlike cable or many OTT services – the transaction will increase competition for show ideas and related talent (e.g., script writers, producers, technical personnel),” the filing states.

“By giving Sinclair the exposure necessary to financially justify the risk inherent in original content production, the transaction will allow Sinclair to compete with the networks and OTT services, which will lead to even more programming options for viewers,” the filing states. “This serves to attract big-name producers who can bring their visions and skill sets to Sinclair because Sinclair will be able to greenlight decisions. These conversations are happening with the same companies and talent agents that produce and/or package content for broadcast, cable, and OTT.”

Sinclair also vows in the filing to expand its live high school sports coverage to key Tribune markets over time. And it will hire 60-90 staffers to improve the digital presence of the Tribune stations.

The filing indicates that Sinclair expects Justice to complete its anti-trust review of the transaction by year’s end. That suggests the final decisions on the transaction and possible conditions won’t come until the new year.

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