Sinclair broadcast group has become something of a punching bag of late, with anti-consolidation activist groups suggesting the government needs to step in and block its deal to acquire Tribune Media due to the content of its broadcasts.
Last time we checked, the FCC was not in the business of regulating broadcast news or opinion, even (and particularly) content some folks disagree with. Any suggestion the FCC would step in to regulate what the current administration sees as fake news would draw howls of protest, and rightly so.
But that door swings both ways and the First Amendment protects speech, period.
The other big complaint — beyond allowing any more consolidation — is that FCC chairman Ajit Pai has favored the deal through regulatory actions, or that he will do so.
Did reinstating the UHF discount help the Sinclair deal? Of course. But chairman Pai voted against eliminating the discount back when the Democratic-controlled FCC voted to do so, and has said the issue needed to be dealt with in concert with the 39% national audience reach cap.
Would loosening the FCC’s ownership rules help Sinclair hold on to more stations? Absolutely. But Pai has for years argued that the rules were impeding the ability of broadcasters to achieve a scale sufficient to compete with multichannel video programming distributors, who have no similar ownership caps; and online video providers who can reach anyone with an internet connection, which is a lot more than 39% of the country — the current national ownership cap.
It makes sense for Sinclair to take this opportunity — a deregulatory Republican-led FCC clearly looking to allow broadcasters to get bigger — to expand.
The FCC’s Media Bureau asked for more evidence from Sinclair that the deal was in the public interest and that Sinclair was serious about complying with the FCC rules as they stand now, not as they might be under looser restrictions Pai is expected to back. That was the right course of action.
One consequence of the election is that a conservative deregulatory Republican heads the commission. It should surprise no one that he is acting like one.