FCC chairman voices 'serious concerns' over Sinclair-Tribune deal

Sinclair TV station map
Sinclair's proposed acquisition of Tribune would expand its reach to over 100 markets. (Sinclair Broadcast Group)

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said today he has “serious concerns” regarding the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed purchase of Tribune Media. The FCC had proposed conditions on the sale, but Pai said he thought Sinclair was likely to try to get around the restrictions, and that it looked like that would be easy to do. The statement puts a kibosh on the acquisition, at least for now, pending a hearing in front of an administrative law judge.

“The evidence we’ve received suggests that certain station divestitures that have been proposed to the FCC would allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law,” Pai wrote.   

He concluded, “When the FCC confronts disputed issues like these, the Communications Act does not allow it to approve a transaction. Instead, the law requires the FCC to designate the transaction for a hearing in order to get to the bottom of those disputed issues. For these reasons, I have shared with my colleagues a draft order that would designate issues involving certain proposed divestitures for a hearing in front of an administrative law judge.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel almost immediately backed Pai.

She didn’t even try to hide her anger at the extent to which the agency has been bending over backwards to accommodate Sinclair to date, writing, “Today’s announcement is welcome.  As I have noted before, too many of this agency’s media policies have been custom built to support the business plans of Sinclair Broadcasting.  With this hearing designation order, the agency will finally take a hard look at its proposed merger with Tribune. This is overdue and favoritism like this needs to end.”

That anger is reflected by many media watchers, who note that Sinclair has been engaging in outright propaganda in recent months.

Sinclair had no response as of press time.

Pai’s missive immediately put an 8% dent in Tribune Media’s stock value.

With the acquisition, Sinclair would become the largest owner of broadcast stations in the United States, with over 200 stations in over 100 markets.

The American Cable Association, which represents thousands of mom-and-pop cable companies, has been an opponent of the deal. The ACA also responded to Pai’s letter today, saying it “applauds FCC Chairman Pai for seeking the support of the other Commissioners to refer the Sinclair-Tribune transaction and the associated station sales to Fox and others to an Administration Law Judge, an action that’s understood to signal the Commission’s disapproval of the deal.  From the beginning, ACA has insisted that the transaction is unlawful and certain to create numerous consumer harms, such as higher retransmission consent fees.  It’s well past time for Sinclair to realize that its effort to engage in massive media consolidation has failed and that it should withdraw the transaction without delay so the FCC no longer needs to devote any of its limited resources to a doomed endeavor.”