WASHINGTON — On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to erase several longstanding media-ownership limits that prevented one broadcast company from controlling too much media in a single market.
The agency rolled back a local television-ownership rule that barred a broadcaster from owning multiple stations in smaller local markets and weakened the standards against owning more than one top-rated station in the same market.
The FCC also gave its blessing to so-called joint sales agreements, or JSAs, which allow a single company to run the news operations of multiple stations in a single market that would otherwise compete against each other. The vote also overturned the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, which prevented a single company from owning a daily newspaper, TV and radio stations in the same market.
Today’s moves clear the way for the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media, a deal government agencies including the FCC are now reviewing. Should regulators approve the merger, the resulting broadcast giant would control more than 233 local-TV stations reaching 72 percent of the country’s population, far in excess of national limits set by Congress on broadcast-TV ownership.
With their overemphasis on crime and safety in the urban core, Memphis' TV-news stations already affect a potent, subtle, and effective right-wing bias. Today's media news suggest things are about to get less subtle. On Monday, May 8, Tribune Media Co. announced its 42 television news properties, including Memphis' WREG-TV, would be acquired by Sinclair Broadcast Group for somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.9 billion.This also means Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn's ongoing surrogacy will become a regular feature in the Memphis media landscape.
If approved by the FCC Sinclair, will operate 233 stations in 72-percent of America's broadcast markets. The company will additionally assume $2.7 billion in debt.
Sinclair has a long, unapologetic (though occasionally denied) history of aligning itself with conservative politics and making local news less local. There's no point in repeating the origin story when this Memphis Flyer Viewpoint from 2003 does such a fine job of condensing things.
Like many a media empire, Sinclair grew through a combination of acquisitions, clever manipulations of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, and considerable lobbying campaigns. Starting out as a single UHF station in Baltimore in 1971, the company started its frenzied expansion in 1991 when it began using "local marketing agreements" as a way to circumvent FCC rules that bar a company from controlling two stations in a single market. These "LMAs" allow Sinclair to buy one station outright and control another by acquiring not its license but its assets. Today, Sinclair touts itself as "the nation's largest commercial television broadcasting company not owned by a network." You've probably never heard of them because the stations they run fly the flags of the networks they broadcast: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and the WB.
The new deal, which also gives Sinclair part ownership in the Food Network, still requires FCC approval, but, as noted by CNN, the Trump administration has shown nothing but interest in approving these kinds of mergers. Once approved Sinclair plans to swiftly liquidate all real estate connected to Tribune Media's print holdings. That makes sense since, as noted by The Baltimore Sun, Sinclair Broadcast Group does two things very well: "It knows how to run local stations lean and mean. And it makes some of the most visually engaging local news in the country."
"Bottom Line With Boris," doesn't even sound like a real news segment. It sounds like something made up by the Onion News Network. But it's real — at least in the sense it exists. And if the FCC approves Sinclair media's rule-fudging acquisition of WREG, former special assistant to President Donald Trump, Boris Epshteyn will be popping up on Memphis TV screens several times a week.
For whatever it's worth, Mr. Bottom Line is also the sixth person questioned by the House Intelligence Committee in its ongoing Russia probe. Throughout the campaign Epshteyn was pro-Putin and his financially conflicted commentary mirrored Russian propaganda on the Ukraine. He parted ways with Trump in March, but continues to stand by his man in his private sector editorials.
This week Politico broke news that Sinclair tripled its weekly order for must-air "Bottom Line with Boris" segments.
Memphis won't be alone. If/when the Sinclair deal goes down — and there's no reason to believe it won't — 72-percent of all Americans will live in a Sinclair market. It's a big deal, to borrow from Vox, "Because local news programs are some of the most-watched shows in America."
"Most watched" translates to 4-times the combined audience of the top three cable news stations — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
While national news outlets like CNN become targets in political info-wars, local news delivers the eyes and ears of the nation, and Trump-entangled Sinclair is on the verge of acquiring Memphis' top-rated station.