The FCC has released the Sinclair Broadcasting consent decree and it was a split decision, with Democrats voting strongly and loudly "no!"
Sinclair agreed to pay a $48 million civil penalty to resolve three outstanding FCC investigations. That is twice the previous $24 million record paid by Univision in 2007 settlement with the FCC.
Sinclair is settling investigations into 1) its disclosure of information related to its attempted merger with Tribune, 2) whether it was negotiating retransmission consent in good faith, and 3) its failure to identify sponsors of content it produced for Sinclair and non-Sinclair stations. The $13 million it agreed to settle that third investigation was also a record for a sponsorship ID violation. Sinclair has agreed to admit it did, indeed, violate those ID rules, and institute a compliance plan. For the other violations it only agreed to institute a compliance plan.
The FCC said settling and ending the investigation, and not finding reason to consider revoking the company's broadcast licenses over character issues related to lack of candor, as some had called for, was in the public interest. But only the Republican commissioners thought so.
"In this consent decree the Federal Communications Commission ignores its rules and bends the facts in order to assist Sinclair Broadcast Group with sweeping its past digressions under the rug," said Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "For this reason, I dissent."
"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," said Democratic commissioner Geoffrey Starks. "The majority’s conclusion that there is no substantial and material question of fact as to whether a character qualifying issue arises from the Sinclair conduct is not warranted, and the decision to allow Sinclair to pay a penalty in lieu of fully accounting for its admitted lack of candor in the Sinclair-Tribune transaction is an abdication of our responsibility to enforce our rules and to require that broadcast licensees act in the public interest, not in furtherance of their own interests. It is not clear whether a full examination of Sinclair’s actions would result in a revocation of its broadcast licenses, an admonition, or something in between. It is clear, however, that this Order ensures we will never know."
Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly had major issues with the whole Sinclair-Tribune transaction review process, which he called a "mess" and a "de facto" death sentence for deals. He suggested the vote for the settlement was a case of finally closing the book and moving on.
The settlement clears the way for the FCC to start considering Sinclair license renewals as part of its regular license renewal process, the next round of which begins next month.
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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.