FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's surprise announcement that he was proposing designating the Sinclair-Tribune merger for a hearing before an administrative law judge, citing possible violations of law, drew strong reaction from deal critics suddenly facing a victory they thought was a long shot.
A source said Pai already has the votes to approve the designation, with only commissioner Michael O'Rielly yet to vote, but signaling he could support it. Such a hearing could take more than a year and in the past such designations have been deal-killers. It also virtually ensures that a legal challenge to the UHF discount, a challenge whose decision could also undo the merger, will be decided before the FCC ultimately weighs in.
"NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association is grateful to Chairman Ajit Pai for taking measures to promote a more thorough and thoughtful review of the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger and related transactions," said the group. "NTCA has consistently maintained that the proponents of these deals have provided little, if any, justification for how they would serve the public interest. We agree with the Chairman’s observation that Sinclair’s continuing control over divested stations gives rise to significant concern—just one concern among many raised by these deals. NTCA therefore welcomes today’s decision to designate certain issues for hearing, and we hope that this is the start of a harder look at all of the ways in which these transactions are likely to harm consumers and undermine the public interest.”
The Coalition to Save Local Media, which could have been named The Coalition to Block the Sinclair-Tribune Deal, was celebrating.
“We applaud the FCC for recognizing today that no matter how many times Sinclair revised this deal, they were never serious about proposing a merger that follows the rules," said the Coalition to Save Local Media. "For over a year, Sinclair tried to play games and try to retain control of stations rather than truly divesting. Furthermore, Sinclair continued to completely rely on the antiquated UHF discount currently under court review...[T]oday’s move by the FCC proves this fight was never about right versus left but protecting the key principles of our public airwaves—localism and competition."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called the draft order designating the deal for hearing "an important victory for the millions of viewers who value real localism in broadcasting."
Blumenthal has been a vocal opponent of both Sinclair and the merger. "Sinclair’s policy of censoring viewpoints and mandating national cookie-cutter content runs contrary to the need to promote and protect diverse and local voices," he said.
“We appreciate the FCC has recognized the serious legal concerns being voiced by the bipartisan opposition coming from all sides since the takeover was announced," said Computer & Communications Industry Association President Ed Black. "This merger clearly was not in the public interest and clearly violates longstanding rules to protect consumers. There really was no divestiture or remedy that would work given Sinclair’s history. We hope this review will be the beginning of the end of a proposal that was such a threat to diverse voices, local news and democracy.”