Won't render decision until at least July 12

The FCC will be restarting the informal 180-day shot clock on its review of the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger after it reviews the latest and information from the most recent filing. It signaled it had been waiting to consolidate Sinclair's various re-filings and tweaks to the deal, and is doing that, but is also going to seek even more info on top-four market station ownership requests.

The story initially reported the clock had already started, but that has not happened yet.

That public notice signals the commission has what is expected to be essentially the final version of the deal, though still with questions about this latest iteration. Sinclair has filed it numerous times as it tweaked the terms in response to media deregulation by the FCC and antitrust concerns of the Justice Department, which is also vetting the deal. The Justice Department confines itself to competitive harms, while the FCC's review extends to pro-public interest benefits.

Sinclair plans to spin off nine stations in markets where the FCC's local ownership limits don't allow it to own both its own stations and Sinclair's. In two other markets--Indianapolis and St. Louis,  Sinclair is seeking a waiver from the restriction on owning two of the top four-rated stations in a market. That used to be prohibited, but the FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai loosened that to allow for exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

The FCC released a public notice putting the deal out for more comment and setting a July 12 deadline for reply comments, meaning it will not render a decision before that date, and likely not for a few days after that since it is expected to be taking those comments into consideration, including the ones that come in a midnight on July 12, before making that decision.

There is also the request for more info in the top four markets.

The pleading cycle is June 20 for initial comments, July 5 for opposing comments, and then July 12 for replies to those comments.

Related: O'Rielly Defends FCC Against Charges of Pro-Sinclair Bias

Sinclair plans to spin off nine stations in markets where the FCC's local ownership limits don't allow it to own both its own stations and Sinclair's. In two other markets--Indianapolis and St. Louis,  Sinclair is seeking a waiver from the restriction on owning two of the top four-rated stations in a market. That used to be prohibited, but the FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai loosened that to allow for exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

Sinclair is on another clock as a federal court decides whether or not to overturn the FCC's restoration of the UHF discount (https://www.broadcastingcable.com/news/fcc-uhf-challenge-has-no-standing-legs-to-stand-on), an FCC deregulatory move that paved the way for the merger since without it the combo would have resulted in a broadcast group reaching over 70% of the national audience when the cap on such audience is 39%.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has declined to say the FCC would await that FCC decision before the court rules, but the FCC has not appeared to be in a rush to judgment on the deal, either, much to the consternation of financial analysts trying to handicap the deal's chances. FCC officials don't comment on the clock, but it was not restarted for any of the Sinclair re-filings between January and this week, though presumably someone at the FCC was looking at those proposals, even if they were assuming another version was in the offing.

The chairman did tell Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) earlier this month that the reason the FCC had not restarted the clock in all that time was "because we have not had adequate information upon which to base a decision."

The FCC's unofficial merger shot clock has been paused on day 167 since January as the FCC anticipated the Sinclair re-filings. The clock started last June, when the merger application was filed, but there have been multiple stoppages.

Related: Tick But No Tock

According to their application, Sinclair owns or operates 173 TV stations in 81 markets and is the single largest provider of local TV news country, a point critics make to argue the FCC should not allow it to get larger, particularly given its conservative bent. Tribune owns 42 TV stations in 33 markets, as well as WGN America cable net, digital multicast network Antenna TV and WGN Radio.

Even with the necessary spin-offs to get under the 39% cap (even with the UHF discount it would top that) and to comply with local ownership limits on multiple stations in a market, the combined group would own over 200 TV stations.

Related: Sinclair Says Consolidation is Not Retrans Blackout Culprit

Sinclair argues it needs that scale to compete with other video providers, like cable and over-the-top distributors, with no ownership restrictions.

Critics say most people still rely on local news, and that the combined company would homogenize and centralize that product to the detriment of the public interest.

"As FCC opens a new comment period around the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger, this time focused on additional divestitures attempting to comply with media ownership rules, there remains a major problem," said the Coalition to Save Local Media, one of those deal critics. "The FCC and all merger stakeholders are waiting for the pivotal decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on whether the FCC will be allowed to restore the UHF discount.  Without the outdated and unjustified UHF discount, Sinclair and Tribune’s attempted merger will place the combined entity substantially over the national ownership cap, even under their latest proposal."The coalition comprises a mix of groups, from the American Cable Association, to Common Cause to The Blaze.

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