Let’s start by updating my latest post on television. Last Thursday, in discussing Fox Sports paying a fortune for Thursday Night Football, I brought up Sinclair Broadcast Group – the largest TV owner in America – trying to buy Tribune Broadcasting, another biggie.
Sinclair had given hints on what it would divest in order to get approval from the Federal Communications Commission (public airwaves) and Justice Department (antitrust) ownership limits. You’ll find that here.
Also, I mentioned the FCC’s internal watchdog is looking at whether its chairman, Ajit Pai, pushed too hard for the blockbuster $3.9 billion deal by having his agency let television broadcasters own a lot more stations than they were allowed. That happened mere weeks before the deal was announced.
Those against the deal question the timing of the rule changes, and also Pai’s meetings with Sinclair representatives.
It used to be a company’s stations couldn’t reach more than 39 percent of the country but the change is, the FCC restored the old rule that lets companies “discount” the reach of their UHF stations in the formula, because those stations were weaker, pre-cable and satellite.
Sinclair’s stations reached 38 percent of the country before the Tribune deal – just short of 39 percent — but with the UHF stations, the combined company would legally reach 72 percent!
Tribune has 42 stations, and Sinclair either owns or operates 193. That’s noteworthy because some stations will still have to be spun off to comply with even the relaxed rules.
So who plans to buy the stations Sinclair would divest if the deal goes through?
21st Century Fox, since Disney/ABC plans to buy most of its assets, leaving the so-called “New Fox” with just the Fox network; 28 TV stations in 17 markets, covering more than 37 percent of homes, but the Fox Television Stations Group’s website STILL doesn’t list them, as I’ve written time and time again; the Fox News Channel; the Fox Business Network; and a whole lot of cash in exchange for everything else including its studio.
Besides, Sinclair owns more Fox affiliates than anyone else, giving it power, and owns more Fox affiliates than stations of any other network. In fact, Variety reports that after the deal, Sinclair will have more Fox affiliates than even 21st Century Fox itself owns!
And Sinclair is proposing it be allowed to keep multiple stations in Harrisburg, Indianapolis, and Greensboro, N.C. — even though FCC rules say a company can’t own two of the top four stations in a local market. Three people familiar with the negotiations have said the two sides are expected to come to an agreement eventually.
The question is: Will the merger bolster local news coverage and be a stronger competitor to internet giants like Facebook and Google — or harm competition?
“When any number of companies outside the broadcast sector can reach the entire country with the same programming, the national cap becomes a fiction that limits, and applies only to, broadcasters.”
I say those other companies — cable, satellite and the internet — don’t use our public airwaves and broadcasters do, so the rules should be different.
Last Thursday, I also wrote about Fox trying to buy stations in cities with NFL teams. I don’t exactly care for the emphasis Fox has put on that, since teams have been moving. But it already has a wide majority of the NFC, which it mostly carries Sunday afternoons, and the AFC becomes even more important since Fox will be carrying Thursday Night Football.
So the plan is for Tribune’s WPIX-New York (CW) and WGN Chicago (independent) to be sold, but still operated by Sinclair, which wants its stations to be seen all over the country and is how it has operated around the rules for years.
Really gone will be Tribune’s Fox affiliate KSWB-San Diego.
Expected to be gone are Tribune’s Fox affiliates in Seattle (KCPQ), Denver (KDVR, which Fox once owned), Salt Lake City (KSTU, which Fox once owned), Sacramento (KTXL) and Cleveland (WJW, which Fox once owned). Let this show Fox owned but sold three of those five stations, which shows a lack of commitment to those communities.
Plus, there’s Tribune’s CW Miami-Fort Lauderdale affiliate (WSFL-Channel 39).
Imagine the Fox network buying Miami’s WSFL. I’m sure Fox affiliate WSVN’s owner Ed Ansin would have something to say about that. He has more experience than anyone in that situation because NBC did it to him twice: in Miami in 1989 and Boston in 2017.
Tomorrow, I’ll have details from history on why he should be worried, even though the status quo since 1989 has been good for both him and Fox.
Here is a hint: I used the phrase “a lack of commitment to those communities” a few paragraphs ago.
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And one more thing about the FCC’s chairman, Ajit Pai. Last Friday, he won the National Rifle Association’s “Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award” at the Conservative Political Action Conference for successfully pushing to repeal his agency’s net neutrality rules that are popular with the public.
Just today, The Washington Post reported, “Surveys last year showed that more than 80 percent of Americans, and 75 percent of Republicans, preferred keeping the FCC rules on the books rather than repealing them.”
The Hill reported, “Pai’s award is a handmade Kentucky long gun, which will be housed in the NRA’s museum in Fairfax, Va.”
Those net neutrality rules made internet companies common carriers like your phone or electric company, equal to all. But according to the American Civil Liberties Union, “What you can see on the internet, along with the quality of your connection, are at risk of falling victim to the profit-seeking whims of powerful telecommunications giants.”
The Post reports, “There are still “opportunities to challenge the FCC in court and in Congress,” and this afternoon, Ars Technica announced, “The Washington state legislature has approved a net neutrality law that applies to all wired and wireless Internet providers in the state and prohibits blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization.”
If worst comes to worst, the fight to keep net neutrality could become a state by state issue — harder than convincing the FCC, but already being discussed in “more than half of US states.”