Ending speculation it would make a dramatic change, Fox has renewed its affiliation agreements with five Sinclair TV stations in small markets.
The deal comes after a Bloomberg report that Fox was considering a partnership with Ion that would have included a change of affiliation from Fox to Ion on those Sinclair stations. Unlike Fox, which has marquee programming, including major sports, Ion is mostly in the syndicated programming business and has little original fare of note.
Sinclair’s official release announcing the deal sounded upbeat notes and noted it will be able to "participate in vMVPD deals," according to Barry Faber, Sinclair’s executive VP for distribution and network relations. “We have had a long-standing relationship with FOX and this renewal reflects the mutually beneficial network-affiliate model …. We look forward to continuing to discuss with Fox the renewals of other affiliations which are up at the end of this year and in 2018.”
The re-upped markets include Columbia, S.C.; El Paso, Texas; Reno, Nev.; Albany, Ga.; and South Bend, Ind.
Plenty of questions linger about the overall relationship between Fox and Sinclair. One of the jewels in Fox’s programming crown is Fox News, which could face a challenge from right-leaning Sinclair, which is already the top station owner and will become far larger if it closes its pending acquisition of Tribune Media. There has been widespread suspicion in the industry that Sinclair’s endgame is to take on Fox with a rival all-news network.
In a Variety cover story in July, CEO Chris Ripley sought to dispel the notion of a cable venture, saying the marketplace was “well served” by existing networks. “Our strength is local news,” he said. Leaving any cable ambitions aside, the No. 1 station owner is poised to grow even larger. Counting Tribune’s footprint, it would own 50 Fox affiliates, which would increase its negotiating leverage considerably.
In any scenario, Sinclair’s political inclinations are clear. It supplies “must-run” editorials to its stations spearheaded by former Trump Administration official Boris Epshteyn, an initiative recently skewered by HBO’s John Oliver. The company also recently hired former Sony television chief Steve Mosko—a major trophy for a local broadcaster that prompted speculation that Mosko was coming aboard in part to oversee the ramp-up of something beyond the station realm.
Sinclair has experimented with national news offerings via its multicast network holdings, recently announcing a millennial-aimed short-form effort called TBD. Last week, it announced the hiring of Scott Ehrlich as VP of emerging platform content, a role that involves developing new ways to package news for nationwide audiences.