Having opened the door to an unhealthy amount of broadcast-industry consolidation, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai sought to block the path Monday of the most alarming deal pending: Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed $3.9-billion takeover of Tribune Media. It doesn’t exactly redeem Pai for his earlier deregulatory frenzy, but it will bring some badly needed scrutiny to a deal that would make a mockery of federal limits on broadcast ownership groups.
Having a broad range of news, information and opinion is essential to a healthy democracy. And while the internet has made an all-but-unlimited number of outlets available to anyone with a broadband connection, television still dominates the landscape — half of Americans get their news regularly from TV, according to a Pew Research survey. That’s why the federal size limit on broadcasters — no group can own stations that reach more than 39% of American households with TVs — still needs to be enforced. It doesn’t help matters that Sinclair, the nation’s largest broadcast group, pushes a particular political viewpoint aggressively, requiring local stations to run opinion pieces and marketing material dictated by the corporate office.
The deal wouldn’t have been possible had Pai not persuaded his fellow Republican FCC appointees in April to restore a technically obsolete rule that exempts half the households reached by many of the Sinclair and Tribune stations from the ownership cap. Purchasing Tribune would enable the new Sinclair to reach nearly 60% of U.S. households with its signals. Other rules changes pushed by Pai could allow Sinclair to own two of the most popular stations in St. Louis and Indianapolis, and to own multiple stations in markets with fewer than eight independently owned stations.
Yet Sinclair wants to go even further. Three of the major Tribune stations the company said it would sell to meet the ownership limit — in Chicago, Dallas and Houston — would continue to be operated by Sinclair, which would retain the right to buy them back. That was too much for Pai, who said Monday he had “serious concerns” about divestitures that “would allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law.”
Pai called for the Tribune takeover to be reviewed by an administration law judge, and the commission is likely to agree. That may not be a fatal blow to the deal — Sinclair could try to rescue it by truly distancing itself from the stations it’s selling — but it’s a start.
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