WASHINGTON (CNS) — You may recall the adage, “I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” Uttered by Charles Brownson, who served four terms in Congress 1951-59 as an Indiana Republican, he was advising against ruffling the feathers of newspaper types.
And in our visual age? It could apply to TV station ownership.
That’s at the heart of the matter with the intent by the Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group to buy the 42 TV stations owned by the Tribune Media Co. The purchase must pass antitrust scrutiny.
If the purchase goes through, Sinclair will own 230 stations whose signals cover more than 70 percent of the U.S. population.
Seventy percent is a huge chunk of the country. And, until this year, Sinclair would not have been allowed to come anywhere near it. But the Federal Communications Commission reinstated the “UHF discount” given to station owners.
Readers of a certain age will remember this, but for those who are younger, a tutorial.
In the beginning — of TV, anyway — the only channels were 2 to 13; all were VHF, or “very high frequency,” channels. By the mid-1950s, ultra-high frequency, or UHF, channels made their debut. But most TVs at that time only went through channels 2-13. Set-top boxes, with separate antennas, were created to pull in the signals. Later TVs were equipped with two dials: one for VHF and one for UHF, when ranged then from channels 14 through 83.
Because of UHF’s late start and weaker analog signal, not to mention that VHF stations had already gobbled up the coveted network affiliations, the FCC in 1985 granted the UHF discount, giving UHF station owners half-credit for their market’s coverage area. So, if, say, the San Antonio market covers 1 percent of the U.S. population, the UHF station is decreed to cover just 0.5 percent of the population. This tactic allowed entrepreneurial station owners to keep their holdings under federal ownership caps — which have, regardless, risen steadily since the discount was granted.
But surprise! The UHF band is better for digital TV, which replaced analog broadcasting in 2009. That, plus the ubiquity of cable and satellite options rendering VHF and UHF virtually on a par with each other and everything else in the 500-channel universe, the FCC in September 2016 voted to remove the UHF discount. But on April 21 the FCC, under new chairman Ajit Pai, restored the discount. Just 17 days later, on May 8, Sinclair announced its purchase of Tribune.
Pai, in a Sept. 15 letter to Rep. Dana DeGette, D-Colorado, said: “Neither Sinclair nor Tribune nor anyone acting on behalf of either company informed me or my office of a possible transaction involving these companies before the commission voted to reinstate the UHF discount.”
He added he had met with Sinclair representatives three times since the Nov. 8, 2016, election, and that two FCC staffers had separate meetings with Sinclair personnel. “I do not recall any FCC matters being discussed” at his Sinclair meetings, and “I have been told that no pending FCC matters were discussed” during top staffers’ meetings, Pai said.
He added the public may continue to file comments with the FCC on the merger. And that the FCC asked Sinclair and Tribune to respond by Oct. 5 to questions posed by the commission. Merger opponents filed a federal court brief Sept. 25 saying the FCC erred in reinstating the discount, claiming the resulting media consolidation is arbitrary, capricious and not in the public interest.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ communications policy holds that “the public has a First Amendment right to the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources on broadcast stations. … It also recognizes that many religious and noncommercial media outlets are small entities that need support to avoid being overpowered by large media conglomerates.”
Is bigness in itself bad? In an era when TV stations strive to be an inoffensive as possible to keep viewers from going elsewhere, Sinclair critics contend Sinclair has a conservative bias, arguing its control of stations over such a large swath of the country would be harmful. Sinclair gives its stations “must-run” news and editorial segments that critics charge are skewed, and with no more fairness doctrine to give equal time to opposing points of view, those segments go uncontested.
Sinclair ordered its ABC affiliates to not air a “Nightline” installment which did nothing but recite the names of the dead in the Iraq War. And, while Sinclair never aired “Stolen Honor,” a documentary accusing then-Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of prolonging the Vietnam War through his anti-war activism, so many headlines about the controversy were made that it had the desired effect. And that was in 2004, 13 years ago, when Sinclair owned only 62 stations.
Such is the power of TV’s reach.
Looking for something more recent? Consider Sept. 24. After President Donald Trump’s remarks at a campaign rally Sept. 22 in Alabama denigrating football players who “take a knee” during the national anthem before NFL games, followed by disparaging tweets against football and basketball players alike, much of the nation was riveted as to how players would respond.
At every NFL game that day, players, coaches and sometimes even owners either stood with arms locked in solidarity or knelt on one knee. Some teams stayed in their locker room until the anthem had concluded.
Despite Trump’s ability to dominate the news cycle, not even he can compete with 12 hours of uninterrupted football pregame, game and postgame coverage on a Sunday when the players’ reactions to the national anthem made at least as much news as the games. Ink by the barrel, indeed.