International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is raising the alarm about the proposed acquisition of Tribune Media by Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair, with 173 television stations, is already the biggest station owner in the nation, and adding Tribune’s 42 stations would extend its reach considerably.
Until recently, the merger would have been illegal under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules that try to limit concentrated ownership of licenses to use the publicly-owned broadcast spectrum. Those rules bar any one company from owning stations that reach more than 39 percent of the American public total. Sinclair-Tribune would reach 72 percent.
But the agency has turned the rules upside down under Trump-appointed FCC chair Ajit Pai, in a way calculated to facilitate the merger. To begin with, the FCC reinstated a rule that counts only half the potential audience of UHF stations as compared to VHF stations. That rule dated from the days of analog television, when UHF stations (Ultra High Frequency) assigned Channels 14 and up were the static-plagued down-market cousins of VHF (Very High Frequency) stations, which were assigned channels 2 to 13. Today, that’s a meaningless and obsolete technical distinction, because all commercial television stations are broadcast as digital signals in the UHF frequency range.
Even with that rule change, Sinclair-Tribune would reach 45 percent of American households, so Ajit’s FCC proposes to approve the merger on the promise that the new company would sell stations until it met the 39 percent limit.
IATSE Local 600 rep Dave Twedell is concerned that members’ jobs will be lost in consolidation and as Sinclair replaces local news with national content. Sinclair owns Portland’s KATU and Seattle’s KOMO, and in union bargaining is refusing to commit that local studios will stay open and continue to produce news.
“If Sinclair is successful in this merger,” Twedell says, “it would put immense pressure on others to take same approach — cost-cutting, centralizing, job losses, and service losses to the community that tune into the TV shows.”
IATSE is just one of an array of groups opposed to the merger. For some others, the issue is Sinclair’s history of mandating that local TV news shows air nationally-produced conservative commentary segments. The company at times even dictates at a national level what local TV anchors must say. No other station owner does that. Even Fox, noted for the slant of its cable news network, gives local affiliates relative autonomy. Producing local news is what satisfies the FCC’s public service requirement, the justification for letting broadcast TV stations sell ads on publicly owned airwaves.
Prepare to be outraged
What happens to local news when Sinclair comes to town? HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver aired a hard-hitting 19-minute segment on Sinclair July 2 — which has since racked up 6.3 million views on YouTube: