Sinclair’s Washington Winning Streak Has Democrats Crying Foul
Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. has prospered in Washington since President Donald Trump took office, as policy changes open a path for the conservative-leaning broadcaster to expand nationwide.
Sinclair’s regulatory winning streak continued this week with proposals at the Federal Communications Commission to ease ownership restrictions and approve a new broadcast standard, leaving Democrats to cry foul.
“It has reached a point where all of our media policy decisions seem to be custom-built for this one company," Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic FCC member, said Wednesday at a congressional hearing. "It’s something that merits investigation.”
On Tuesday, the FCC eliminated a requirement for broadcasters to keep a local studio. A day later, Pai called for easing ownership restrictions, potentially taking pressure off Sinclair’s $3.9 billion deal for Tribune Media Co.’s TV stations. Earlier, he had restored an obsolete rule, making the deal possible. On Thursday, the agency moved toward blessing a new broadcasting standard that may enrich Sinclair as it offers viewers sharper pictures.
Republicans and other broadcasters welcomed what they called overdue steps to eliminate outmoded regulations. The recent record at the FCC under Republican Chairman Ajit Pai is deregulatory, a switch from steps to tighten rules under his Democratic predecessors.
“For many years, Chairman Pai has called on the FCC to update its media ownership regulations — one of which dates back to 1975,” said Tina Pelkey, an FCC spokeswoman. “Any claim that he is modifying the rules now to benefit one particular company is completely baseless. The chairman is sticking to his long-held views.”
Sinclair is benefiting from changes sought by broadcasters writ large. For instance, those asking the FCC for ownership rules changes to be considered Nov. 16 include Nexstar Media Group Inc. and the National Association of Broadcasters trade group, whose members include CBS Corp., Comcast Corp.’s NBC, Walt Disney Co.’s ABC and 21st Century Fox Inc.
"The entire broadcast community has been seeking ownership relief for decades, and multiple industries support advanced broadcast technology,” said Rebecca Hanson, Sinclair’s senior vice president for strategy and policy. “To suggest that these reforms benefit one company ignores a wealth of publicly available advocacy.”
The Tribune merger would give Sinclair, a once-obscure Maryland broadcaster, a total of 233 stations, forming a conservative TV giant rivaling Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News empire. The deal would enlarge the platform for Sinclair’s chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide hired in April.
Republicans support the efforts of Pai, who was chosen by Trump to lead the agency. The chairman controls the agenda and leads a Republican majority.
“Our media ownership rules need an overhaul to keep pace with innovation and today’s communications marketplace,” said Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the communications subcommittee that oversees the FCC. "I look forward to the FCC’s deliberation and action in this important space in the coming weeks.”
Pai for months has been under scrutiny from congressional Democrats, in part for leading an April vote that revived a rule centered on obsolete TV technology, allowing broadcasters to count only half their audience against a nationwide cap. That gave Maryland-based Sinclair leeway to pursue Tribune and grow its reach to more than 70 percent of the country.
Before that vote Sinclair warned investors it was near the national ownership cap; the day after it announced the purchase of 14 stations, and within three weeks it had unveiled the Tribune deal for 42 stations including those in big markets such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Representative Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at the hearing Wednesday that the FCC was about to “clear out any last obstacles to Sinclair Broadcasting’s purchase of Tribune Media.”
"Chairman Pai has claimed repeatedly that it is simply coincidence that his actions are all timed to benefit Sinclair,” Pallone said.
Pai on Thursday said the agency will also vote Nov. 16 on a plan backed by Sinclair for a new broadcasting standard that would replace current technology. The new method, dubbed Next Generation television, offers a clearer picture and better sound, can let viewers select multiple views of the same program, and is designed to reach mobile devices such as phones and tablets. Current television sets won’t be able to receive the new signals, so consumers may need to get a new TV or an adapter.
“We are proud of our investments in Next Gen TV,” said Hanson, the Sinclair official. “The prospect of a free and local mobile video service is an irrefutable benefit for consumers who want new, competitive choices."
Rosenworcel, the Democratic FCC member, at Wednesday’s hearing said the FCC was “possibly foisting on all of our households a new broadcast standard.” In an earlier speech she expressed fear the FCC “is about to rush this standard to market without understanding the consequences for consumers.”
Sinclair will “benefit more than anyone” from the new standard because it holds patents and it will be able to charge cable and satellite providers to carry the new stream as well as a standard programming stream, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the Washington-based New America group.
Sinclair rivals also joined in the criticism of Pai’s proposals.
“Rather than weakening existing media consolidation rules, the FCC should seek further answers from Sinclair-Tribune on how they plan to comply with current law,” the Coalition to Save Local Media said in an emailed statement Thursday. “Sinclair-Tribune has utterly failed to prove their proposed merger is in the public interest.”
Members of the coalition, an ad hoc policy group that includes Dish Network Corp., compete with Sinclair for viewers.
Changes to the ownership rules would take effect 30 days after being published in Federal Register. That would place the effective date in early 2018, unless a federal appeals court stops the order from going into force. Legal challenges would be likely.
— With assistance by Kyle Daly
October 27, 2017 at 09:00PM