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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Columns

Sinclair, Tribune merger would make a TV media monopoly


Sinclair Broadcast Group announced in May that the company intended to acquire Tribune Media for a reported $3.9 billion. The company hopes to close the deal by the fourth quarter of this year. If the merger receives approval from the Federal Communications Commission and antitrust clearance, the company would have a dangerous amount of reach and control over media outlets across the country.

The truth is that most media outlets have an agenda. That agenda may be formed through direct orders from upper management or through the collective consciousness of creators based on the general consensus of their viewers.

In Sinclair’s case, that agenda generally comes in the form of must-runs and mandatory news segments from upper management.

Whether you agree or disagree with the views espoused by certain outlets, an emphasis has always been placed on safeguarding against dangerous levels of consolidation in the media industry. Concerning broadcast television stations, a company may own as many stations as it wants, but it cannot reach of more than 39 percent of the nation’s TV-owning households. 

Recently, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai rolled back a number of provisions set up to curtail one company from obtaining too much market share, including a controversial decision to reinstate what is known as the Ultra High Frequency discount.

The UHF discount makes it possible for a company to mark down the magnitude of its reach based on the type of broadcast frequency on which the channel historically broadcast.

The distinction was made between UHF, typically channels 14 and greater, and very high frequency, typically channels two through 13. It was a distinction that pre-dated the digital era of TV and is certainly an antiquated provision.

Whether a media company has a political agenda is beside the point when a company’s political agenda is coupled with an economic agenda of edging out independent outlets and attempting to monopolize markets. A diversity of viewpoints and sources of information is of the utmost importance to maintaining the integrity of the media and its watchdog role.

Even with the ability of a hypothetical Sinclair-Tribune merger to discount its 72 percent reach to the nation’s television households under the UHF discount, it would still have a reach of 45.5 percent.

As long as Pai doesn’t increase the nation’s cap as he intends to do, it is still unacceptable, even with the discount.

Sinclair is the largest owner of local television stations in the U.S. and the largest local news provider. Sinclair operates 173 broadcast stations with more than 500 channels in over 80 markets, while Tribune owns more than 40 broadcast stations in over 30 markets.

In addition to Sinclair’s history of pushing a conservative agenda, it should be noted that President Donald Trump’s former special assistant and assistant communications director for surrogate operations, Boris Epshsteyn, took a position at Sinclair as the company’s chief political analyst.

It’s an appropriate position given Epshsteyn’s job history. Three days later, however, the aforementioned UHF discount was reinstated. Less than half a month after the reinstatement, Sinclair announced plans to acquire Tribune.

In his statement regarding a public notice submitted by the FCC and its initiative for “modernization of media regulation,” Pai claims that the FCC “wants to modernize our rules in order to better promote the public interest.” Meanwhile, Pai is passing oxymoronic provisions that promote corporate interests over the public.

Consolidation in the media industry, especially in the realm of local broadcast television, should always be viewed with a skeptical eye.

Opinion columnist Nicholas Bell is an MBA graduate student and can be reached at [email protected]

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