×

FCC Eyes Raising TV Station Ownership Cap Amid Sinclair-Tribune Merger Review

The FCC has formally initiated a review of its rule that limits the number of TV stations that a single entity can own — an effort that will surely draw protest as it comes amid the commission’s evaluation of the mega-merger between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media.

The FCC on Tuesday issued a notice of proposed rulemaking regarding the national ownership cap, which is now set at 39% of U.S. TV households. The Sinclair-Tribune merger as it stands would require divestitures for the enlarged company to remain under the 39% threshold. If the cap is raised significantly, Sinclair would not have to sell off as many stations.

The review of the ownership cap is tied to another decision made by FCC chairman Ajit Pai early on in his tenure that has also been criticized as a major benefit to Sinclair. The FCC’s so-called UHF discount — a formula for calculating a company’s TV station holdings against the 39% limit — was reinstated by Pai in April after it was eliminated by the previous FCC regime.

“Earlier this year, the Commission reinstated the UHF discount, finding that the prior FCC’s decision last year to eliminate it absent a simultaneous review of the 39 percent national cap effectively tightened the cap without determining whether that was in the public interest. Because the national cap and the UHF discount are inextricably linked, any review of one component of the rule must include a review of the other,” Pai said in a statement.

“Under the proposal that I shared with my colleagues today, we would go about determining the future of the national cap, including the UHF discount, the right way. Specifically, we would seek public input on whether to modify, retain, or eliminate the 39 percent national cap as well as the UHF discount.  With respect to legal authority, in 2016 the Commission ‘conclude[d] that [it] has the authority to modify the national audience reach cap, including the authority to revise or eliminate the UHF discount’; we will take a fresh look at this issue as well,” Pai said.

The notice of rulemaking means that the FCC’s review of the ownership cap will be opened up to public comments and replies in the coming months. That is sure to be a free for all among advocacy groups who are already on the offensive against the $3.9 billion union of Sinclair and Tribune. Even if the Sinclair-Tribune deal is approved by the FCC before a formal vote on raising the cap, Sinclair could cite the pending review as a reason to hold off on divestitures.

The national ownership cap was last raised in 2004. It was initially lifted in 2003 from 35% to 45%, but an outcry from independent TV station owners (who worried that the major networks would elbow them out of large markets) as well as media watchdog groups, Congress came up with a compromise solution of 39%.

The UHF discount allows owners of stations on the UHF band (14-64) to count those stations at only half of the actual coverage area of the markets they serve. The UHF discount had been in place for years but was rescinded in 2016 because the question of signal strength had become mostly moot in the era of digital broadcasting, and because the vast majority of TV homes receive signals through an MVPD. The restoration of the UHF discount made Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune possible because most of Sinclair’s 170-plus TV stations are UHF outlets.

The fact that it was Congress that imposed the 39% solution on the station cap in 2004 has led to some debate about whether the FCC has the authority to make any changes. Pai has asserted the commission does have the right to review it as part of its mandate to enforce media ownership rules.

“A comprehensive review of the rule is warranted in light of considerable marketplace changes, such as technological developments and increased video programming options for consumers, since the cap was last modified in 2004,” Pai said.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which reps most of the nation’s TV station owners, declined comment on the news, reflecting the divide among its members on the how-big-is-too-big question. Karl Frisch, executive director of the consumer watchdog org Allied Progress, was among the media activists who were quick to blast the FCC’s move.

“The lengths to which Chairman Pai will go in order to help Sinclair monopolize the local television news industry is astonishing,” he said. “His move is not only the latest in a series of rule changes tailor-made for Sinclair’s benefit, it is an egregious, and likely illegal, example of overreach by the FCC.”

More TV

  • How Cooking-Travel Shows Are Changing TV

    How Cooking-Travel Shows Are Changing TV

    Toyo hunches over his street food stove, cooking tuna with a blow torch, stopping to light his cigarette with it and produce a cheeky grin. The Japanese chef, who owns a roadside stand in the city of Osaka, is one of many highlighted in the Netflix series “Street Food.” Over the course of 30 minutes, [...]

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    SAG-AFTRA Leaders Approve Proposal for New Film-TV Contract

    The SAG-AFTRA national board has approved proposals for a successor deal to its master contract covering feature film and primetime television — a key step in the upcoming negotiations cycle with companies. The board approved the package Saturday with the performers union declining to reveal any specifics — its usual policy. The board established the wages [...]

  • Shannen Doherty'Jennie Garth: A Little Bit

    Shannen Doherty Joins 'Riverdale' Season 4 in Luke Perry Tribute

    “Riverdale” is planning to make a special tribute to Luke Perry. The show’s executive producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa announced at Comic-Con that Shannen Doherty, Perry’s longtime friend and “Beverly Hills 90210” co-star, will guest star in the season 4 premiere. The tribute episode will “reflect Perry’s enduring legacy and the indelible imprint his character” Fred Andrews [...]

  • Supernatural CW

    'Supernatural' Team Gets Emotional Final Season Sendoff at Comic-Con

    The cast and creative team of “Supernatural” bid a fond farewell to the attendees of San Diego Comic-Con on Sunday. At the show’s final panel in the gargantuan Hall H, the team thanked the fans for all of their support over the years as the series prepares to enter its final season. “I’m trying not [...]

  • Alicia Rodis photographed by Alicia Rodis

    SAG-AFTRA Moves to Standardize Guidelines for Intimacy Coordinators

    SAG-AFTRA is moving to standardize guidelines for intimacy coordinators as part of an effort to establish policies for union members when their work involves nudity and simulated sex. “Our goal is to normalize and promote the use of intimacy coordinators within our industry,” said SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris. “Intimacy coordinators provide an important safety net for [...]

  • SDCC TV News Roundup: Syfy Releases

    SDCC TV News Roundup: Syfy Releases 'The Magicians' Season 5 Clip (Watch)

    In today’s SDCC TV news roundup, Syfy shares a clip from “The Magicians” Season 5, and Amazon sets the Season 4 premiere of “The Expanse.” CASTING Julie Gonzalo and Staz Nair have joined the cast of “Supergirl” for its upcoming fifth season. Gonzalo will portray iconic DC character Andrea Rojas aka Acrata, a polished businesswoman [...]

  • Doom Patrol -- Ep. 101 --

    'Doom Patrol' Renewed, Season 2 to Stream on DC Universe and HBO Max

    “Doom Patrol” has been renewed for a second season and will soon be available outside of DC Universe. At San Diego Comic-Con, series executive producer Jeremy Carver and star Diane Guerrero announced not only that the show will be back for another season but also that it will be available on HBO Max, the upcoming [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content