The future of local television is threatened unless TV station owners are allowed to bulk up to compete more effectively with MVPDs and digital competitors. That’s what Sinclair Broadcast Group is telling the FCC in its reply to the flood of comments and petitions opposing Sinclair’s pending $3.9 billion buyout of Tribune Media.
Today is the deadline for Sinclair to respond to more than 1,000 comments that poured in to the FCC from individuals and competitors urging the commission to block the deal. The union of Sinclair and Tribune would create a broadcast TV behemoth with more than 200 stations reaching 72% of U.S. TV households.
Sinclair’s 173-page filing reiterates the company’s main selling points to investors and regulators since the merger agreement was reached in May. Local TV station owners need to achieve greater scale to compete with MVPDs and digital upstarts that have also been in consolidation mode. Replies to Sinclair’s filing are due by Aug. 29.
Sinclair maintains that none of the TV firms that filed petitions against the merger, including Dish Network and independent cable programmers such as One America News Network and Newsmax, have offered “a shred of evidence” of how consumers or the public interest would be harmed by the deal. Instead, the deal’s opponents are motivated by self-interest and are attempting to use “the regulatory process to suppress competition or promote outdated agendas,” the filing states.
Sinclair notes that the Tribune Media auction earlier this year generated no bids from non-broadcast TV companies — a sign that other media giants have no interest in getting into the local TV business.
“Sinclair firmly believes in the mission of local broadcasting and this filing fully explains the public interest benefits that this transaction will provide as a result of the efficiencies and scale created by the combination of Sinclair and Tribune,” said Sinclair president-CEO Chris Ripley in a statement released with the filing. “This acquisition will help to ensure the future of the free and local television model for both Tribune and Sinclair’s local communities.”
The filing emphasizes the level of investment in equipment upgrades and newsgathering resources that Sinclair has made in other recent acquisitions, such as Allbritton Communications and Fisher Broadcasting. Sinclair totals it up to more than $40 million since 2013.
Sinclair seeks to counter critics that say the company has a history of gutting newsrooms after acquisitions and forcing more centrally produced programs and news segments down the throats of local operations. Sinclair offers detail in the number of news staffers at various stations and a tally of some 700 awards bestowed on news and local programming produced by its stations newscasts, including local Emmys and the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Edward R. Murrow Awards.
Sinclair’s history of offering conservative commentary segments in its newscasts has sparked much discussion in the context of the merger. Sinclair notes that those segments account for 1% of the program time across all of its local stations. Moreover, the filing flatly states that the political viewpoints expressed on the company’s stations has no bearing on whether the merger should be approved.
“None of the Petitioners have shown any evidence of news slanting by any Sinclair station, only that the commentators on some Sinclair stations (whose commentaries are clearly labeled as such) do not meet their taste,” the filing states. “As the Commission and the Petitioners are well aware, such arguments have no place in this or any FCC proceeding.”
The company has acknowledged that the enlarged Sinclair-Tribune group will require some divestitures to bring it in line with the FCC’s existing limit on national reach for local broadcasters. And there are 14 markets where the addition of a Tribune station would make Sinclair run afoul of existing duopoly rules.
The Justice Department is also reviewing the deal. Sinclair received a request on Aug. 2 for more information from Justice Department.
As of today, the Sinclair-Tribune merger review at the FCC is in Day 48 of the 180-day “shot clock” that the FCC established to help ensure a timely schedule for its deal approval process.
It’s understood that Sinclair executives hope the question of whether the enlarged company will comply with the FCC’s existing media ownership rules can be settled among the staff of the commission’s media bureau rather than going through a public vote of the five commissioners.
Newly appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai has been accused of having a cozy relationship with Sinclair executives. Pai has indicated his support for allowing more consolidation among TV station owners.
A group of Sinclair-Tribune opponents dubbed the Coalition to Save Local Media reiterated its opposition to the deal in a statement issued in response to the filing. The group includes Dish, the American Cable Association, One America, and Glenn Beck’s the Blaze.
“A combined Sinclair-Tribune would create the single largest operator of local broadcast stations in the country, reaching 72 percent of American households, and lead to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers. Additionally, the combined company would effectively control the market for certain broadcast equipment and impede deployment of mobile broadband, limiting competition and choice for the distribution of content and broadband services nationwide,” the statement said.