Free Press policy director Matt Wood told B&C Tuesday that his group plans to file a third petition to deny a big TV station merger, in this case Sinclair's nearly $1 billion purchase of Allbritton TV stations.
While Wood said the group hopes to file the petition, he pointed out it had until Sept. 3 to make that call, and was still "assessing its options and resources."
To comply with FCC local ownership limits, Sinclair said it would have to sell four stations in three markets, but would "provide sales and other non-programming support services to each of these stations pursuant to customary shared services and joint sales agreements."
Free Press argues that spin-offs combined with those agreements amount to continued control of the stations and should be counted as ownership. "The FCC needs to scrutinize these proposed deals and stop allowing covert consolidation through shared services agreements," Free Press President Craig Aaron said when the deal was announced last month. "In particular, it should require stations Sinclair has indicated it will put up for sale as part of this deal to be sold to independent competitors, not Sinclair front groups."
Free Press filed a petition Tuesday to deny transfers in the Tribune/Local TV deal that involve spin-offs combined with Tribune continuing to provides services to the stations. The Tuesday filing followed a similar petition to deny portions of the Gannett/Belo deal.
For their part, Gannett and Belo have pointed out to the FCC that the sharing agreements violate no rules and that Free Press and others -- in its case, the American Cable Association most prominently -- are trying to regulate, or at least hold a referendum on ownership and retransmission consent, through the merger process.
Cable operators argue that the joint retrans negotiations that are sometimes included in sharing arrangements drive up the price of retrans payments, which are passed along to cable customers.
The FCC has been considering whether to count some sharing agreements toward ownership caps, but has not taken any action to date, in part because that proposal is part of a long-standing media ownership rule review that was held up in the courts for years and most recently by concerns that the commission had not sufficiently considered the impact of any changes on ownership diversity.