Its bid for Tribune Media has some analysts asking, is the broadcast group resolved to rival Fox News?
To borrow a phrase from local TV news legend Ron Burgundy, local TV owner Sinclair Broadcast Group is kind of a big deal.
The Maryland-based company owns 173 local stations across the country and, if its $3.9 billion bid to acquire Tribune Media gets government approval, Sinclair’s sway over the television industry will grow even larger.
The purchase would add 42 stations. Sinclair would have properties in three major media markets — Los Angeles, New York and Chicago — and extend its reach to more than 70 percent of American households. Meanwhile, it would also acquire its own national cable channel in Tribune’s WGN America.
Sinclair declined an emmy interview request. But in a recent interview with Broadcasting & Cable , Sinclair president and CEO Chris Ripley argued the purchase was necessary.
“The [broadcast] industry is too small relative to the rest of the telecommunications industry. We were peanuts compared to Verizon and AT&T or a Charter. Those are our counterparts in negotiations, and it’s important to level the playing field and scale.”
Sinclair was already the nation’s largest owner of local stations, and while Ripley sees adding 40-plus outlets as a way to expand the delivery system for its programming, critics of the Tribune purchase have a very different view. They see this consolidation as a dangerous proposal that could fundamentally alter consumers’ news and programming choices. In particular, it might change the tone of the news Sinclair stations deliver.
“Sinclair isn’t just interested in owning and operating these local stations.” says Angelo Carusone, president of the progressive watchdog group Media Matters. “They are a company that has a political agenda. They see this acquisition not just as a business move but as a political endeavor.”
Sinclair, he explains, has long been a supporter of conservative causes and candidates. In 2004, the company refused to let its channels broadcast an episode of ABC’s Nightline that named all of the soldiers killed in action in Iraq. That same year, 62 Sinclair stations aired Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, the “swift boat” documentary that criticized Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
The major networks would not air the film. In 2008, Sinclair broadcast an anti-Obama ad that linked the future president to the founder of the Weather Underground movement.
“They aired that ad, which even Fox News said didn’t meet their standards,” Carusone says. “Sinclair seems to be happy to air these things without applying the rigorous standards other broadcasters would.”
Then there are the “must-runs.” Produced by Sinclair and sent to its local news outlets, these are stories that stations reportedly must air within 24 to 48 hours.
According to Dave Twedell, whose Local 600 union represents news workers at stations including KTLA in Los Angeles, must-runs have included a recent piece featuring Sinclair’s vice-president for news, Scott Livingston, going after the national media for “fake news stories.” Another was critical of Obamacare.
“I’ve heard about must-runs for several years from every station we represent,” Twedell says. “You can put them on the air at 4 a.m. if you want, but if corporate says, ‘Here’s something you need to run,’ it will run. My members have told me they were surprised to be told, ‘You have to put this on.’”
In 2015, Sinclair launched Full Measure with Sharyl Atkisson, a weekly political-affairs show that runs on most of its affiliates. And the company hired former Donald Trump spokesperson Boris Epshteyn as a political commentator.
With Tribune supplying a ready-made national cable outlet, WGN America, observers speculate that Sinclair might launch its own national news network to compete with Fox News.
“Nationally, Fox News is more vulnerable than ever, thanks to the scandals with Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes,” says Jeff Jarvis, the founder of Entertainment Weekly and now a professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. “There is definitely the opportunity to go after them.”
However, building a new news network from the ground up wouldn’t be easy, or cheap. That’s why Jarvis figures that if Sinclair does plan to showcase conservative political beliefs, it “would promote that agenda through its local stations. They know that a large portion of America gets its news from local stations. It’s a clever way to get around building a national news network.”
With faith in news outlets seemingly on the wane — a 2016 Gallup poll found that only 32 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news media — local news stations tend to fare better.
“They are very stable when it comes to public opinion,” Carusone says. “People don’t see their local stations as part of the back-and-forth political game. It’s the one part of the news ecosystem that liberals and conservatives seem to both trust.”
Given this, he adds, it doesn’t make sense for Sinclair to “turn their affiliates into a 24-hour news channel. They can take a more strategic approach. A more likely scenario is perhaps finding a conservative host who is promised a Saturday-morning syndicated program that will get on all these stations.”
Fox News doesn’t seem concerned by the possible competition. When asked about Sinclair, a spokesperson would only point to recent ratings that showed Fox News as the number-one cable news network in both daytime and primetime slots.
Tribune CEO Peter Kern, who also declined to speak with emmy, maintained in a B&C interview that creating a conservative news network is of no interest to Sinclair. “It’s foolish to think anyone could put their own agenda out as content and still perform as a business if the markets don’t want to hear about it,” he said. “I’m sure Sinclair will try to maximize the company and serve the markets they’re in.”
According to B&C reporter Diana Marszalek, Sinclair may have “toyed with the idea” of creating some sort of national news system, but “they’ve flat-out said they aren’t going to be the new Fox. I’ve been told repeatedly that any locally produced programming they do won’t be politically charged. It’s not their agenda.
"They’ve also made it pretty clear they have no plans to make radical changes at WGN America. From what I hear, they’re going to review strategy and likely stick with some sort of original programming for the channel.”
Still, changes were already unfolding at WGN America before the sale was announced. This spring, Tribune canceled the dramas Outsiders and Underground. On his first-quarter earnings call with investors, Kern justified dropping these original productions because they were “quite expensive, and we would like to put capital toward more efficient shows.”
Carusone also expects Sinclair to keep some form of original scripted programming on WGN America. (At press time, it was in talks to hire ex- Sony Studios chief Steve Mosko.) However, he doesn’t expect the company to invest in new shows nearly as heavily as Tribune.
“And that’s a little bit of a concern,” he explains. “They will try to squeeze out some shows to have some return on investment. Still, with the kind of consolidation you’re seeing with Sinclair buying Tribune, you might see fewer resources available for creative competition on television. And that could be a huge problem.”
Time will tell how big an issue this could become. Before the deal can get the blessings of the Federal Communications Commission, Sinclair might have to sell stations to avoid owning two in certain markets, unless the FCC alters that rule. If and when that approval does come, Kern has said he’s pretty confident the result will benefit not only Sinclair, but everyone watching its stations.
“It’s going to be a great company, the largest and most successful broadcaster ever,” he told B&C. “You need to look at this as an opportunity.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2017