House Democrats in top FCC oversight positions have written FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to express their concern that he may have taken a series of actions to benefit Sinclair that could show a "pattern" of preferential treatment and may have been inappropriately coordinated with the White House and the company.
Signing on to the letter were House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (N.J.), Communications Subcommittee ranking member Mike Doyle (Pa.), and Oversight Subcommittee ranking member Diana DeGette (Colo.).
The letter cites various news stories, including from B&C, about rule changes, White House meetings, and more that the legislators suggest add up to big questions about whether the independent agency has been truly independent.
Related: Tribune: We're on Track to Close Sinclair Deal
They cited what they said were Pai's swift actions that benefitted Sinclair. That included reinstating the UHF cap, which would dramatically reduce the number of stations Sinclair would have to spin off to get under the 39% national audience reach cap and essentially paved the way for the proposed $3.9 billion merger with Tribune.
They also cited a short pleading cycle—30 days—for the proposed deal, the FCC's approval of Sinclair's purchase of Bonten Media Group stations "shortly after the FCC revoked a processing guidance that would have required close scrutiny of the transaction," and then launching a proceeding to allow broadcasters to start using the next-gen ATSC 3.0 transmission standard, to which a Sinclair subsidiary owns some of the patents and which Sinclair has been strongly pushing.
They sought answers to a host of questions on the deal and ATSC 3.0 and by Aug. 28.
At a July 25 hearing in the House Communications Subcommittee, Pai told Pallone that no one in the White House or Administration generally had "made any representations" to him about the deal or "to take any particular action or expressed views on the merits, and certainly not with respect to the UHF discount."
Looking to pin down that answer, one of the follow-up questions was: "Beyond making "any representations to [you] about any proceeding relating to that company," more specifically, has any White House official in the current Administration discussed Sinclair at all with you? If so, what was discussed?"
They also want to know, among many other things, if anyone in the Administration has discussed Sinclair with anyone in the chairman's office.
They want any correspondence between Pai's office and Sinclair, including any lobbyists or lawyers, and whether Sinclair requested a short time frame.
FCC spokespeople were not available to respond at press time, though the standard procedure is not to comment on letters until they have been received and vetted. The letter was dated Monday, Aug. 14.
"I think it is fair to say that the entire broadcast industry has welcomed a chairman who cares enough about free and local broadcasting that he’s willing to make regulatory changes needed to ensure its future," said Sinclair D.C. exec Rebecca Hanson. "Modernizing the ownership rules and allowing innovation in broadcast technology are key to this. Next Gen TV will bring new competitive choices to consumers, like free and local mobile video services. None of these FCC rulemakings are unique to us. The broadcast industry is behind them, and they offer the same opportunities to all broadcasters equally.”
As to the ATSC 3.0 patent assertion, Hanson said Sinclair owns a dozen of the 8,000 patents.
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.