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Fox Steps Up its Pursuit of Station Acquisitions in NFL Markets

Seattle, St. Louis and San Francisco seen as targets for expanding local TV holdings

The two stations in Charlotte, N.C. that Fox Television Stations Group gobbled up in January may have only been the appetizer.

The station arm of 21st Century Fox is sniffing around acquisition targets in several major markets, including Seattle, St. Louis and San Francisco. The push is part of a larger strategy to add to its station holdings in NFL markets, particularly markets with NFC teams, the conference for which Fox has a TV rights package. Fox at present has O&Os in 11 of the 16 NFC markets.

Industry sources say Fox is actively looking at stations in the Seattle market. where Tribune owns the existing Fox affiliate, KCPQ-TV. There’s speculation that Fox has its eye on Cox Enterprises-owned KIRO-TV, a CBS affiliate. But sources cautioned that Fox is “turning over a lot of rocks” right now in the market and hasn’t zeroed in on a specific acquisition target.

Seattle-Tacoma is the nation’s 12th-largest TV market. The Seattle Seahawks are seen as an NFL franchise on the rise, which is only fueling Fox’s interest in the market.

The chatter about Fox moving into Seattle has to be some cause for concern at Tribune, as Fox’s affiliation deals typically give the network flexibility to yank the affiliation if the parent company acquires a station in the market. On the other hand, Tribune is about to become the largest outside owner of Fox affiliates in the nation, with 14 outlets, through its pending $2.7 billion acquisition of Local TV Holdings.

Tribune is also poised to own the Fox affil in St. Louis through the Local TV buy. Cox Enterprises also owns the Fox affiliate in the San Francisco market, KTVU-TV.

Fox was quick to yank its affiliation from Bahakal Communications’ WCCB-TV in Charlotte when it bought two stations in the market from Raleigh-based Capital Broadcasting. WCCB had been a Fox affil for 27 years. The move raised eyebrows in the station community and was seen as proof of 21st Century Fox prexy Chase Carey’s determination to add market share in cities with NFL teams. Football rights are not lucrative for local and national advertising sales, but they enhance the station’s bargaining power in retransmission consent negotiations with cable, satellite and telco operators.

In the past two years, TV stations have emerged as attractive acquisition targets again because of the windfall of retransmission consent fees (which Fox blazed the trail for a few years ago) from distribs and ever-increasing political advertising expenditures in key regions.

Fox’s ambition to add stations may be curbed by the FCC’s regulatory limit on station ownership, which bars a single entity from owning stations that cover more than 39% of U.S. TV households (with certain allowances are made for UHF stations). But there’s a groundswell among broadcast heavyweights to fight the FCC’s current station cap as an outmoded regulation given the size and scope of the largest cable operators and satcasters and the broadening of the media landscape in general.

Fox at present owns 28 stations in 18 markets covering nearly 37.28 % of TV homes.

Reps for 21st Century Fox and Tribune declined to comment.

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.

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