Suddenly, it appears that the Sinclair Broadcast Group (which owns KUTV-Channel 2) won’t be buying Tribune Media (which owns KSTU-Channel 13) after all. And that, in turn, puts the kibosh on the sale of KSTU — aka FOX 13 — to Fox. At least for now.
It’s a stunning reversal. That anything would prevent right-leaning, Trump-supporting Sinclair from getting the necessary approval from a Federal Communications Commission dominated by Chairman Ajit Pai — a Republican appointed to that position by Donald Trump — is, well, astonishing.
But less astonishing than the utter arrogance Sinclair demonstrated as it sought to flout the rules that had been bent in its favor.
Pai issued a statement expressing “serious concerns” about the proposed acquisition, and he and the other members of the FCC voted unanimously to send the deal to an administrative law judge for review — which analysts believe will effectively kill it. This despite the fact that Pai had loosened ownership regulations so that Sinclair (which currently owns 192 stations and has agreements with 22 more) could take ownership of most of Tribune’s 43 stations.
(Tribune Media is not in any way affiliated with The Salt Lake Tribune.)
But Sinclair wanted it all. When the $3.9 billion deal was announced, Sinclair said it didn’t believe it would have to sell any stations — even though the takeover would give it 233 stations covering 72 percent of U.S. households, and the FCC limit is 39 percent. When it finally agreed to sell a few stations, it announced plans to sell them to close friends of Sinclair executive chairman David Smith. And to the estate of Smith’s late mother. Seriously.
Pai indicated that was a bridge too far, issuing a statement that “certain station divestitures that have been proposed to the FCC would allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law." Sinclair, in turn, issued a statement that it is “shocked” by this turn of events, adding, “At no time have we misled the FCC in any manner whatsoever.”
That’s probably true. Anyone paying any attention has known about Sinclair’s attempts to subvert the FCC regulations for more than a year. Pai’s sudden about-face might have something to do with the New York Times’ report that he is under investigation by the FCC’s inspector general for his moves to benefit Sinclair.
Here's the thing. Sinclair thought it was in a position to ignore rules that were being bent in its favor. To do whatever it wanted. This is the definition of hubris.
Locally, KUTV and KJZZ-Channel 14 will remain Sinclair-owned stations. Plans to sell KMYU-Channel 12 to a Smith ally and keep it under Sinclair's control will proceed.
The deal Fox struck to buy seven current Tribune stations — including KSTU — is dependent on the sale of Tribune to Sinclair, so it’s probably dead. But Tribune could turn around and sell its stations to Fox in a deal of its own. Or sell itself — all 43 stations — to another buyer. Or sell stations off piecemeal.
Sinclair unsuccessfully scrambled to placate the FCC. Now it will have to convince a judge. Maybe it will succeed. But things don’t look good.
Which is fine by me. Not just because of Sinclair’s propagandizing in local newscasts, but because no company should control as much of the TV landscape as Sinclair does now, let alone what it would control with the addition of the Tribune stations.
Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is a content partner with FOX 13.