Sinclair Broadcast Group, the owner of the largest chain of television stations in the nation, in Hunt Valley, Maryland. (Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
By Timothy Karr / 11.16.2017
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to erase several longstanding media-ownership limits that prevented one broadcast company from controlling too much media in a single market.
The agency rolled back a local television-ownership rule that barred a broadcaster from owning multiple stations in smaller local markets and weakened the standards against owning more than one top-rated station in the same market.
The FCC also gave its blessing to so-called joint sales agreements, or JSAs, which allow a single company to run the news operations of multiple stations in a single market that would otherwise compete against each other. The vote also overturned the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, which prevented a single company from owning a daily newspaper, TV and radio stations in the same market.
Today’s moves clear the way for the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media, a deal government agencies including the FCC are now reviewing. Should regulators approve the merger, the resulting broadcast giant would control more than 233 local-TV stations reaching 72 percent of the country’s population, far in excess of national limits set by Congress on broadcast-TV ownership.
Today’s vote culminates a series of agency moves to directly benefit Sinclair and allow the company to keep more stations after the merger with Tribune. In April, the FCC reinstated the so-called UHF discount, an obsolete loophole that helps Sinclair skirt those congressionally mandated ownership limits. In October, the FCC voted to eliminate the “main studio rule,” which required TV and radio broadcasters to maintain studios in or near the communities they serve.
Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron made the following statement:
“Today’s FCC vote should be a national scandal. Chairman Pai has warped FCC policies and process to accommodate the creation of a Trump-friendly local-television conglomerate. The Sinclair Broadcast Group’s unabashed goal is to monopolize local-television markets and push its pro-Trump brand of propaganda over the public airwaves.
“Chairman Pai and his Republican colleagues want us to ignore the nightmarish impact of media consolidation on local communities and once-thriving newsrooms. They would have us believe that the path to more diversity is fewer voices and viewpoints; the path to more competition is fewer competitors; and the path to more localism is greater distance from the communities broadcasters are licensed to serve.
“Sinclair’s unabashed goal is to move toward a drastically consolidated news market in which only a few broadcast goliaths can afford to compete. And the result of today’s actions will be a new wave of media consolidation as other firms race to keep up. Any pretense that this vote will help journalism or increase ownership diversity is cynical and offensive. Today’s vote will lead to more mergers, more layoffs and more communities that have no news outlets in place to cover important stories and hold officials accountable.
“You don’t have to dislike Sinclair’s politics to see what’s wrong with this deal. Anyone who believes in a functioning democracy can see it’s a terrible idea to let one company amass this much media power. The FCC has abandoned its responsibilities to protect the public interest, and people won’t stand for it.
“Free Press will take the FCC to court to challenge today’s vote, as we have in the past when the agency weakened its ownership rules. The FCC has again failed to run a fair and transparent process, listen to public input, do the necessary research, or answer for how gutting these rules will impact the already abysmally low levels of broadcast ownership by women and people of color.
“The FCC has repeatedly lost in court on this very issue for ignoring these concerns. It can’t keep ignoring them and hope to escape court scrutiny and public outrage.”