As millions of Americans gather next week for Thanksgiving, they’re also bracing for the inevitable breakdown into shouting points some relatives picked up from cable news. And it may be about to get even worse.
What Fox News has done to help slant cable news to the right, Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group is now poised to do to the nation’s local broadcast news, turning it all into a hotbed of national partisanship.
In order to complete its nationwide takeover of the local news, via a $3.9 billion plan to merge with Tribune Media, Sinclair first needs permission from the Federal Communications Commission — which it is almost certainly going to get.
What exactly is Sinclair, and what is it doing?
Every large and medium American city, and most of the small ones, has a bunch of local TV stations. They’re usually network affiliates — channels that bring your local news and programming as well as whatever prime-time and daytime content they get from whoever they’re affiliated with: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, or the CW.
In a handful of the country’s biggest cities, those affiliates are in fact directly owned by the network. For example, WABC and KABC, in New York City and Los Angeles respectively, are owned and operated by Disney, ABC’s parent company. CBS, Comcast (NBCUniversal), Disney, and 21st Century Fox (Fox) all own and operate several TV stations around the country.
But the majority of local stations across the U.S. are owned by other companies. The biggest groups include Tegna, Hearst, Tribune, and Sinclair. Each of these media companies owns dozens of local TV stations across dozens of markets nationwide.
Sinclair specifically boasts that it owns 193 stations, comprising 589 channels, across 89 U.S. markets — and it wants to get bigger. In May, it announced its move to take over Tribune, which owns and operates another 42 broadcast television stations as well as WGN America.
The merger would make Sinclair the largest local TV operator in the country, giving it access to an estimated 72 percent of all American households — including, for the first time, the nation’s largest markets.
Why is that bad?
The main objections to the merger boil down into two big buckets.
The first is Sinclair itself. The company is not a neutral party: It is distinctly conservative and right-leaning, and it imposes that perspective on every local channel it takes over.
One of the biggest recent examples is in Washington, D.C. Sinclair purchased the capital’s ABC affiliate, WJLA-TV, in late 2013. By 2014, the station’s news content had already taken a noticeable tack to the right, running new segments in which conservative commentators criticized actions taken by the Obama administration.
In the years since, the station has endured significant turnover. Many prominent veteran anchors and reporters have either departed or had Sinclair decline to renew their contracts. Through 2016, as The Washington Post observed, WJLA ran segments supporting the Trump campaign and segments denigrating the Clinton campaign, while minimizing several of the scandals that plagued the Trump campaign (and administration).
It’s not just D.C. Sinclair issues extremely conservative “must-run” commentary segments, recurring features, news segments, and news scripts to its stations nationwide — a pattern that John Oliver aptly identified in July:
As Oliver points out, if you watch Fox News on cable, you know what you’re getting. But if you’re watching your local news, with local stories and local reporters, you may not realize that it’s acting as a nationalized conservative mouthpiece.
(Sinclair rebutted both the WaPo’s and John Oliver’s claims later that month in an internal memo obtained by Politico.)
That “national” element leads to the other concern critics have: the dangers of media consolidation in general.
The FCC has rules that prevent one single entity from having too much of a stranglehold on your local media, but in order to facilitate the Sinclair merger, it’s been changing some of those rules in favor of allowing increasing consolidation. Critics argue that the actions, championed by FCC Chair Ajit Pai, have purely partisan political motives and do not serve the public interest.
In particular, critics fear that increased consolidation would harm the ability for independent and minority broadcastes to reach audiences. For example, the National Hispanic Media Coalition said of a recent rule reversal that, “Local and diverse voices on our airwaves were already sparse … They will become even more rare as large national conglomerates now have the green light to force owners of color out of the market.”
It’s not just consumer and media advocacy groups; attorneys general from four states have already announced their opposition to the Sinclair/Tribune merger as well.
Why is the FCC involved?
The FCC has jurisdiction over everything that broadcasts, thanks to physics. Or, more specifically, the electromagnetic spectrum.
All of the data that travels to us wirelessly — from the oldest old-school AM radio to the newest data-gobbling video app for your phone — travels on a comparatively narrow slice of radio waves in the EM spectrum. It’s a lot of data, and the airwaves are crowded.
When too many things try to use the same frequency too close to each other, the signals interfere, everything gets all messed up, and nothing works. So since the early radio era we’ve had the FCC playing air traffic control for signals.
For TV and radio stations, that means issuing broadcast licenses. Those licenses grant permission for a certain entity to use a certain frequency in a certain region (i.e., “103.7 FM” or “channel 7”).
In exchange for getting dedicated access to use a certain slice of spectrum, the station operator agrees to operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” And any time a license changes hands — as it does in any merger or sale of TV stations — the FCC has to approve the transaction and find that it serves the public interest.
However, in the case of the Sinclair merger, critics argue that instead of requiring the companies to adhere to the FCC’s standards, the FCC is changing and lowering those standards, public interest be damned.
What rules has the FCC changed?
The FCC has changed three rules this year in a way that seem designed to basically grease the rails for Sinclair.
- The UHF Discount (April)
It’s been a solid 35 years since new TVs shipped with two dials, so it’s easy to forget, but your local channels come in two basic types: UHF and VHF. UHF was the bottom knob back then, channels 14 and up.
The FCC has a cap for how big is too big for a UHF TV station: 39 percent of U.S. households. You have to stay at or under that limit.
But there’s a catch, and it’s called the “UHF discount.” Basically, for the purposes of calculating that cap, your actual reach is halved. If your station actually reaches 1 million people in a major city, for example, for purposes of the law that only counts as 500,000 people.
On the national scale, that could very quickly add up to reaching far more than 39 percent of households while still, on paper, reaching not even half that.
The key takeaway: The Sinclair/Tribune merger would reach 72 percent of U.S. households, but because they only have to count half, it could still qualify under that 39 percent threshold in the law.
- The Main Studio Rule (October)
The Main Studio Rule requires local media stations to have some kind of physical presence in the community where they broadcast. If you own and operate a station in St. Louis, you have to have an actual office in or near St. Louis — you can’t just do it all remotely from New York.
That regulation was put in place back in 1940, the dawn of the TV era. But the current FCC eliminated it in October.
The key takeaway: Without having to maintain a physical presence in the cities where it broadcasts, Sinclair could easily distribute hundreds of “local” media channels from one central, studio and not actually be local at all. It wouldn’t have to build out any new facilities for new stations, and could shutter them when it acquires stations from other companies (like Tribune).
- The Media Ownership Rule (November)
This is the most recent change, and the most publicly contentious.
There are a bundle of FCC rules explicitly designed to preserve competition in media markets.
These rules outright limit how many media outlets a single entity can own in a given area. It’s not just television, either: The rules prohibit a major broadcaster from owning a daily newspaper in the same region, and place limits on how many TV and radio stations a single company can own in one place in combination.
The rules also contain a provision limiting a single owner to having no more than two of the “top four” television stations in a given market (almost always the local ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox affiliates) and requiring that there be “eight voices” — alternative stations — remaining in a given market after a sale or merger.
On Nov. 16, the Commission voted to outright eliminate most of these ownership rules, and severely modify others.
The Commissioners who dissented in the 3-2 vote spoke out against it strenuously.
“Instead of engaging in thoughtful reform,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “this agency sets its most basic values on fire. As a result of this decision, wherever you live, the FCC is giving the green light for a single company to own the newspaper and multiple television and radio stations in your community. I am hard pressed to see any commitment to diversity, localism, or competition in that result.”
The key takeaway: There no longer exist strong limits on how many TV and radio stations a single company can own in a single city, meaning that alternatives to Sinclair channels could vanish.
So is this Sinclair deal guaranteed?
It does appear clear that the FCC will authorize the transaction along party lines, and because of the agency’s own informal “shot clock” it is likely (though not guaranteed) to do so within the next 60 days.
However, once the Commission reaches a decision, it is all but guaranteed there will be lawsuits to stop it. The only questions are how many, and filed by whom. Suits are most likely to come from advocacy groups like Free Press, as well as trade groups representing smaller, independent broadcasters and minority-owned broadcasters.
Additionally, a group of 15 U.S. Senators has asked the Inspector General of the FCC to investigate whether Chair Pai is acting with “independence and impartiality,” and to require Pai to “immediately recuse himself from all actions related to the merger” until the inspector general has completed an investigation.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration has made it a policy to meddle in business affairs that may benefit it — such as its recent attempts to try and scuttle the AT&T/Time Warner merger. A dominant Sinclair would put Trump-friendly voices in most of the country, and this administration is likely bent on making that happen.
Kate Cox is a writer and reporter based in Washington, DC.