Ripley: Sinclair Needs to Grow to Survive

Last week’s Sinclair/Tribune acquisition deal, which would make Sinclair mind-bogglingly big, sent some industry analysts and political pundits reeling with conjecture over what Sinclair, the country’s largest station group, really wants to get from shelling out $3.9 billion to get even bigger. Ask Chris Ripley, Sinclair’s president and CEO, that question, however, and the whole thing seems pretty clear-cut. “It’s all about the spectrum,” Ripley said in an interview with B&C contributing editor Diana Marszalek. Where it gets infinitely more complex is when you start factoring in what a company the size of an expanded Sinclair could do with the spectrum it would get along with Tribune’s 42 TV stations — particularly under ATSC 3.0, the next-generation broadcast standard — as well as the reach and influence that comes with it.

In an edited transcript of the interview, Ripley explains Sinclair’s rationale behind buying Tribune, what it means to the larger broadcasting industry, and why things have to change.

If the Tribune acquisition deal is approved, Sinclair will reach 72% of U.S. households, which critics say is just too big. Do you agree?

The special interest groups are just anti-media consolidation, but they miss the bigger picture: This industry won’t survive in the land of giants if it doesn’t scale up. The [broadcast] industry is entirely too small relative to the rest of the telecommunications industry. We were peanuts compared to Verizon or an AT&T or a Charter. Those are our counterparts in negotiations, and it’s important to level the playing field and scale, which helps the economics in about every aspect in our business. Our industry is massively undersized due to old rules that don’t make sense anymore. Everyone wishes we were back in the 1950s, and there were only three television stations. But we can’t turn back time and the world moves on.

Why now?

This is the 21st century, and a big part of why we did this was to speed the development of next-generation advance services [enabled by ATSC 3.0]. It’s all about the spectrum. We need to have a better platform so we can actually speak to personal and mobile devices because that’s where viewership is heading, and if you’re not getting content to personal devices then you are not in the game. As we upgrade, we will do everything we do today plus a lot more. And a lot more means mobility, speaking directly to personalized devices … targeted advertising so we are getting more relative ads to consumers. It means subscription-based services where you could pay to skip ads or pay to get special content. We are excited about that and the services we will be able to roll out are going to be game-changers.

The future of WGN America is piquing interest. Any plans for a Sinclair news network?

I don’t think the world needs another cable news channel.

With the near-national footprint a Tribune purchase would give you, Sinclair could have the scale to support a new broadcast network.

We already have national networks, and we have a whole cadre of emerging networks that live over-the-air and on cable — The Tennis Channel, Comet TV, Charge, TBD, and, with Tribune, Antenna TV. I think we can make them more attractive by rationalizing their distribution and their content, and they will move forward to full distribution over the next two or three years and start rivaling the cable channels.

There’s been a lot of noise out there — articles, editorials — that acquiring Tribune will give Sinclair more leverage in pushing a conservative agenda.

That’s just patently false. We produce over 2,000 hours of news a week, and with Tribune it will be probably over 3,000 hours, and the notion that we are centrally influencing or controlling that is preposterous. Local news doesn’t have a bunch of opinion pieces; it doesn’t tilt one way or another. It’s focused on the nuts and bolts of reporting. We wouldn’t be successful economically if we had a broader political agenda we were trying to push through.