Sinclair Broadcast Group isn't looking to challenge Fox News' position as the leading conservative voice in cable news, but the country's largest television station operator's latest acquisition could at least trigger a major shift in the local TV news landscape.
Chris Ripley, CEO of Hunt Valley, Md.-based Sinclair, told Variety in a new cover story that his company has no current plans to launch a national cable news channel that might compete with right-leaning Fox News, even though Sinclair had considered that very idea within the past few years. "Our strength is local news," he told Variety. "The market for national cable news is very well served."
Local news is more than just Sinclair's strength. The company's recent agreement to pay $3.9 billion for Tribune Media would give Sinclair control of more than 200 local TV stations, reaching roughly 72% of the television-owning households. In the words of Variety, the Tribune Media deal, which still requires approval from federal regulators, would turn Sinclair into "a broadcast colossus the likes of which the industry has never seen." (Interestingly, Fox News-parent company 21st Century Fox was also rumored to be kicking the tires on a Tribune Media deal before Sinclair pulled the trigger.)
The deal also gives Sinclair a minority stake in the Food Network and full ownership of the general entertainment cable channel WGN America. So, even if an all-news cable network isn't in the works, those channels combined with Sinclair's massive (and growing) footprint give the broadcaster the opportunity to have much more of a presence on the national stage. But, that possibility is exactly what has Sinclair's critics concerned that a wider reach will give the company a massive platform to push a conservative political message.
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As Fortune has noted, Sinclair executive chairman David Smith is a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump, and the broadcaster has been criticized for what is seen by some as its efforts to use the company's numerous TV outlets to promote conservative views that mirror those of the White House. Trump adviser (and son-in-law) Jared Kushner reportedly told a group of executives ahead of last year's election that the Trump campaign had an agreement with Sinclair to provide access to the candidate in exchange for "fairer" coverage. (Sinclair later denied that it offered preferential treatment of Trump, saying instead that it agreed to air uncut video of interviews with Trump and other candidates on local news affiliates.)
As Variety notes, Sinclair ruffled feathers on the left when it hired the vocal Trump supporter and onetime campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn as the broadcasting group's chief political analyst and then insisted that all of its local news stations air Epshteyn's regular "Bottom Line With Boris" commentary videos. Earlier this month, liberal comedian John Oliver used the majority of an episode of HBO's Last Week Tonight pointing to examples of alleged conservative bias finding its way onto the airwaves via Sinclair's vast collection of local news affiliates.
However, Sinclair's CEO told Variety that the company's critics "mischaracterize what we do by just focusing on a small subset of our newscasts," and airing conservative-leaning commentators can be a boon for ratings. "They represent a diversity of views that you can’t find on other channels," Ripley said.
But beyond political reach, Sinclair's planned acquisition of Tribune Media could also alter the business of local television in the U.S. By controlling an even larger slice of the country's local TV market, Sinclair is setting itself up to have more leverage when it comes to negotiating with national networks and digital services that pay local broadcasters fees to air programming through affiliates and streaming platforms.
There is also speculation that the deal is likely to trigger further consolidation across the local TV market in the coming years. The deal was made possible in the first place by a controversial decision from the Federal Communications Commission (led by Trump's pick for FCC chair, Ajit Pai) to revise the way the government agency counts certain TV stations as part of its ownership rules that put a cap on the number of stations one broadcaster can control. That decision has the potential to pave the way for more deals among TV station-owners looking to consolidate the industry, as stations contend with declining TV advertising dollars. Such a turn of events could end up dramatically altering the landscape of local television affiliates.