Sinclair-Tribune Unites Diverse Opponents

WASHINGTON — The American Cable Association took the lead last week in pushing for the Federal Communications Commission to deny the merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media, a deal it suggests would be bad for consumers and cable operators alike.

But it was joined by a diverse group of deal opponents that wedded conservative news outlets with conservative media critics, union members and activist groups.

There are many reasons why Sinclair’s $3.9 billion proposal to acquire Tribune and its 45 television stations has drawn such fire and ire. One is the sheer size of the combined company — over 200 stations reaching over 70% of the U.S. That had veteran consolidation critics raring to just say no. But the size could also mean much on various fronts.

Wireless operators saw it as a potential roadblock to clearing broadcast spectrum. Cable operators and independent programmers saw it as translating to higher retransmission consent prices and a harder road to carriage.

But however they saw it, a lot of them were seeing red.

Newsmax, the conservative channel and website whose owner, Christopher Ruddy, is a friend of President Donald Trump, saw it as a threat to the Newsmax TV cable net, saying a combined Sinclair-Tribune could tie station carriage to co-owned channels — for instance, it would own Sinclair’s Tennis Channel and Tribune’s WGN America. There was even talk, which Sinclair has downplayed, of morphing WGN America into a cable news channel, competing with Ruddy’s Newsmax TV.

Common Cause adviser Michael Copps, no fan of conservative outlets, was nonetheless in agreement that the deal should not go through, but that was at least in part because he views Sinclair as one of those conservative outlets he doesn’t want to see get any bigger. The former FCC Democrat called it “the most dangerous company most Americans have never heard of,” because of its size and power over news and information combined with “an ideology focused on conservative points of view.”

ACA, which has never been a fan of Sinclair’s use of local marketing agreements to heavy up its retrans muscle, saw it as creating a colossus that would run roughshod over its membership of smaller, independent cable operators, including invoking “after acquired” clauses to bump up Tribune station fees to match those of Sinclair.

The ACA is also worried about the impact of the deal on the ATSC 3.0 rollout if Sinclair can use retrans deals as leverage for carriage of the new advanced TV transmissions. And T-Mobile sees Sinclair’s past efforts to extend the 39-month timeline for giving back spectrum, and Sinclair-Tribune’s position as the group with the most stations having to move in the repack, as reasons to worry about the combined company.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai does not comment on mergers currently before the FCC, but he did restore the UHF discount, which paved the way for the proposal, and has signaled he thinks broadcast station ownership limits are an anachronism in the face of a changed marketplace.

Sinclair was not commenting last week, saying it would do its talking in comments to the FCC in response to its critics. Those are due Aug. 22.

John Eggerton

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.