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How a massive broadcast merger could affect your local TV news

A deal between right-leaning Sinclair Broadcast and Tribune Media could shake up the TV world. Democrats say the FCC is making it easier for that to happen.

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The Sinclair Broadcast Group is hoping the FCC will help with its purchase of Tribune Media.

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The largest television station operator in the US is about to get even bigger thanks to a $3.9 billion acquisition, and Democrats are complaining that the Federal Communications Commission is speeding the deal along.

Sinclair Broadcast is in the midst of buying Tribune Media, a move that would give it unparalleled control over local TV stations across the country. Critics ranging from consumer rights groups to Democrats argue that the combined company would be too influential, with many Americans still getting their news from local stations.

But Sinclair argues that the deal is critical to ensuring the future of free, over-the-air television and that it better positions the company to compete with online giants such as Facebook and Google for advertising. 

Sinclair didn't respond to a request for comment.

The FCC on Thursday is set to vote on rules that would make it easier for the deal to get approved.

Ajit Pai Visits Fox Business Network

Democrats and consumer advocates have questioned FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's efforts to loosen media ownership rules as the agency reviews the $3.9 billion Sinclair-Tribune merger.

John Lamparski / Getty Images

Democrats allege that things are a little too easy. On Monday, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland sent a letter to the inspector general of the FCC, David Hunt, seeking an investigation into whether FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has shown preferential treatment to Sinclair. They also aren't too comfortable with Sinclair's cozy relationship with President Donald Trump, especially during last year's presidential campaign.

The letter comes after FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, called for an investigation into the relationship last month.

Pai has denied that he's trying to help any particular company through these changes.

A spokesman for Pai said that it's all politics and that the Democrats have long had it out for Sinclair, which has often been characterized as right-leaning.

"Any claim that Chairman Pai is modifying the rules now to benefit one particular company is completely baseless," the spokesman said.

To help you make sense of what's been going on, CNET has put together this FAQ.

Who are these companies again?

Sinclair Broadcast is the largest TV broadcasting company, owning 193 television stations and 589 channels in 89 markets.

Tribune Media owns 42 television stations. More importantly, many of those stations serve major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington DC.

Why are people concerned about this deal?

Sinclair is considered a conservative-leaning company and has routinely pushed its local stations to air so-called "must-run" segments. It would be one thing if these segments were locally produced and reflected that community's views, but they are centrally produced and distributed to Sinclair's local stations across the nation.

Former journalists at a Sinclair-owned station in Seattle have complained that the content is often politically biased and poorly produced, according to a New York Times report. "Must-run" segments included things like daily "terrorism alert" reports and a 2016 piece questioning support for Hillary Clinton on the grounds of the Democratic Party's historic ties to slavery, the Times said. In March, Scott Livingston, Sinclair's vice president for news, appeared in one of these segments accusing the national news media of publishing "fake news stories."

Then there's Sinclair's ties to the Trump campaign during last year's election.

What's the connection with Trump?

According to a December 2016 story in Politico, the Trump camp "struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage." Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly told a group of executives that the campaign promised to give Sinclair more access to Trump. In exchange, Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary, Politico reported.

In March, the New York Post reported that Trump had close ties to the executive chairman and former CEO of Sinclair, David Smith, and that the two had discussed possible changes to media ownership rules. Pallone and Cummings noted these connections in the letter they sent to the inspector general.

Are the Democrats worried about that connection?

Yep. Some have expressed concerns that Trump's relationship with Sinclair has flowed down to Pai, who was selected by the president to serve as chairman.

"All of these actions, when taken in context with reported meetings between the Trump Administration, Sinclair, and Chairman Pai's office, have raised serious concerns about whether Chairman Pai's actions comply with the FCC's mandate to be independent," Pallone and Cummings wrote in their letter.

What's going on with the FCC on Thursday?  

The FCC will vote on whether to relax several media ownership rules, including a provision that would allow broadcast groups to own two of the top four TV stations in a market, as well as eliminate a rule that prohibits ownership of both a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market.

These rules, which were created more than 40 years ago, were meant to ensure a variety of perspectives on public airwaves.

Pallone and Cummings wrote in their letter that these changes "will clear away virtually all remaining obstacles to Sinclair increasing its reach beyond the Tribune merger proposal."

But Pai says that the rule is no longer needed and that it puts broadcasters at a disadvantage when competing for ad revenue with internet giants such as Facebook and Google.

"This rule was established in 1975 with the stated purpose of preserving and promoting a diversity of viewpoints," Pai wrote last week in an op-ed for The New York Times. "Arguably, it made sense at the time. But with the internet now dominating the news landscape, the rule is no longer needed, and may actually be undermining the diversity of viewpoints it was intended to foster."

Anything else?

The FCC on Thursday will also vote on a proposal that adopts a new framework for a next-generation TV standard called ATSC 3.0, which would allow broadcasters to stream video to mobile devices. Commissioner Rosenworcel said she thinks the standard still has some technical issues. She has also noted that Sinclair owns several patents for the technology, which makes her suspicious about the timing of rushing the FCC's decision on the standard.

"Before we authorize billions for patent holders and saddle consumers with the bills, we better understand how these rights holders will not take advantage of the special status conferred upon them by the FCC," Rosenworcel said.

What else has the FCC done that might help Sinclair?

This summer the FCC reopened a decades-old regulatory loophole called the "UHF discount" that, critics say, essentially paved the way for the Sinclair-Tribune merger.

The UHF discount allows Sinclair to undercount the reach of some of its stations, which is important because of an FCC rule that no entity can own stations reaching more than 39 percent of the nation's TV households.

The FCC eliminated this loophole in September 2016 when the agency was controlled Democrats. Pai reinstated it in April, just ahead of the merger announcement in May.

Why should consumers care about what Pai is proposing with the new changes to media ownership?

Critics say these rule changes will result in increased media consolidation and fewer points of view at a time when consumers need access to a diversity of opinions.

"Many Americans still get most of their news about local electoral politics from broadcasters," said Gigi Sohn, who worked for former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.  "It's local broadcasters and newspapers who cover local politics and issues that are important to every community."

Sohn said the changes will affect medium-size and small markets the most, where there may only be a handful of broadcasters already operating.

What will happen next?

With a 3-2 Republican majority on the FCC, the two proposals that could help Sinclair are likely to pass. And it's unclear at this point if the inspector general will take up the Democrat's calls to investigate. Meanwhile, the FCC is still reviewing the Sinclair-Tribune merger, which is expected to close next year. 

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