FCC's Pai hits back at accusations of favorable treatment of Sinclair Broadcasting

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is fending off accusations that his commission has been showing favorable treatment of Sinclair Broadcasting amid its proposed Tribune acquisition and other matters.

In a letter (PDF) responding to Democrats in the House, Pai sought to answer questions lawmakers asked about the FCC’s dealings with Sinclair and the White House, and to insist that neither his nor the FCC’s actions have been in the interest of individual companies.

“Whether I have been pushing for the revitalization of AM radio or fighting to ensure that broadcast television stations were treated fairly in the incentive auction proceeding, my actions have been motivated by my belief that a strong over-the-air broadcast service advances the public interest. They have not been fueled by a desire to help any particular company,” Pai wrote.

Pai said that he has met with President Donald Trump twice since Nov. 8 and that both meetings included no discussion of pending FCC proceedings. He also said that he has met with Sinclair representatives three times since Nov. 8. He spoke at a Sinclair event in Baltimore in November, he met with Sinclair at CES in 2017 for what he called a “social meeting” and he met with Sinclair again in January 2017 to discuss FCC proceedings. He said a summary of the last meeting was filed and that his chief of staff accompanied him.

Pai also said that his staff met with Sinclair representatives on two other occasions, but that FCC issues were not discussed.

Pai goes on to defend the FCC’s actions around the review of Sinclair’s proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media, saying that the pleading cycle is consistent with precedent and that his office was not informed of any possible mergers prior to reinstating the UHF discount.

Pai also offered details on the next-gen TV proceeding, insisting that the FCC is going to lengths to ensure the technology is voluntary for broadcasters and that consumer data will be protected.

RELATED: House Dems push FCC for answers about 'preferential treatment' of Sinclair

Chairman Pai’s letter is in response to questions put forth in August by Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), Mike Doyle (Pa.) and Diana DeGette (Colo.).

In that original letter, the Democratic lawmakers asked Pai to clarify what they said could be determined as interesting timing around the reinstatement of the UHF discount—which allows broadcasters to count UHF stations as 50% toward the nationwide ownership cap, and has proved important to Sinclair’s planned takeover of Tribune’s 42 TV stations.

The letter also called out what it said was a shorter than usual pleading cycle for the Sinclair-Tribune deal and a rulemaking proceeding for ATSC 3.0 next-gen TV that was moving ahead with “very few consumer protections in place.”