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Sinclair Broadcasting: America’s New Conservative Media Monopoly?

by Countable | 8.7.17

What’s the story?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, has moved to reinstate a rule which will allow conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcasting to proceed with plans to control nearly three-quarters of the local news broadcasting market. Critics maintain that the reinstatement was done to specifically benefit Sinclair. The FCC and Sinclair have denied the charge.

Why does it matter?

Sinclair’s expansion is only possible by reinstating the antiquated "UHF discount" rule that the Obama Administration discontinued.

The "UHF discount" was a rule enacted in 1985, before the advent of digital broadcasting. Prior to that point, there were VHF (channels 1-13) and UHF signal stations (everything above channel 13). The UHF signal was spotty and weak, affecting those stations’ ability to garner viewership. The “UHF discount” allowed broadcast companies to count the potential viewership of a UHF station at 50% of the actual tally when figuring their overall reach in the market.

However, the national shift from analog to digital broadcasting has resulted in UHF and VHF channels having comparable signal quality. Therefore, the UHF discount arguably was no longer needed. During the Obama Administration, in an attempt to bring regulations in line with current technology, then-Chairman Tom Wheeler eliminated the discount.

Currently, Sinclair plans to acquire 42 stations in major urban markets from Tribune Media. Without the reinstatement of the UHF discount the move would not be possible to accomplish. Congress caps market control at 39 percent to ensure competition. Sinclair already reaches 37.7 percent of the nationwide viewing market with the more than 170 local stations they own, according to Politico.

Under the UHF discount Sinclair’s market control will theoretically drop from 37.7 percent to 23.8 percent despite not actually losing any viewers or markets. This will allow Sinclair to reach nearly 75% of the viewing market by acquiring Tribune, while being accountable to Congress for staying under the 39% cap.

What are People Saying?

Critics of the deal and the reinstatement of the discount point to the company practice of providing local affiliate stations with "must-run" segments portraying a clear, right-wing perspective. The New York Times reported in May that current and former employees at KOMO, a Sinclair station in Seattle, took issue with mandated content from the Sinclair corporate office that they felt was “politically tilted” and “poor quality”.

In December of 2016 the Washington Post ran a feature on the efforts of Sinclair stations to promote the Trump campaign and disparage his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the only Commissioner to vote against the reinstatement of the UHF Discount, did not take issue with Sinclair’s political leaning, but instead with what she argues is the inevitability of more consolidations as a result of the change:

"The commission just wrapped up and put a bow on a huge gift for those large broadcasters, with ambitious dreams of more consolidation. Now I am not a betting woman, but mark my word: this order will have an immediate impact, on the purchase and sale of television stations."

Chairman Pai opposed the elimination of the discount when serving as a FCC commissioner during the Obama Administration and a Sinclair spokesperson has argued that his position is unrelated to the Sinclair-Tribune merger, according to Politico:

"The majority Commissioners’ positions that media ownership reform is needed has been widely known for many years. Therefore, any suggestion that the reinstatement was done on Sinclair’s behalf is false."

Congress could oppose the merger under antitrust statutes, but so far few have raised any concerns. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), called for hearings along with only 7 other colleagues. Rep. David Cicilline (RI), top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel, also raised concerns to POLITICO, though hearings aren’t yet scheduled in the House either:

"Local television broadcasters have long served the public interest. The Sinclair-Tribune merger threatens to upend this responsibility by consolidating local news into a single voice that reaches into 70 percent of American homes."

What can you do?

Do you support the reinstatement of the UHF discount? Are you concerned about the consolidation of local media stations? Do you think local stations need to pursue mergers to survive in the current media landscape, and the reinstatement of the discount will allow them to do that? Do you think Congress should hold hearings about the Sinclair-Tribune merger and other issues of media consolidation?

Use the Take Action button to tell your reps what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: Pixabay / Creative Commons)

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