The proposed Sinclair-Tribune TV broadcasting merger could lead to a single conglomerate exerting significant control over stations that it wouldn’t even own.
Integration between the two companies could see advertising markets increasingly dominated by a near-monopoly, Senate Democrats said Friday, in a letter to the country’s lead telecoms regulator.
Twenty-four members of the Senate Democratic Caucus signed the letter, calling on FCC Chair Ajit Pai to pump the breaks on his ongoing deregulatory push, noting the $3.9 billion deal between Sinclair and Tribune.
The two companies already reach roughly 72 percent of the national TV market, combined. The FCC is currently reviewing their proposed merger–an acquisition of Tribune by Sinclair.
The lawmakers specifically decried Pai’s revocation of an Obama-era guidance vowing to consider “joint sales agreements,” when reviewing proposed broadcast mergers.
“In effect, this change suggests that the FCC will take a blind eye towards agreements that allow functional operation of a station by another,” the lawmakers said.
Joint sales agreements allow two station owners in a single media market to sell advertising together. Tribune and Sinclair currently “exercise substantial operational control over 50 stations,” through the use of resource-sharing deals like joint sales agreements, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a trade group opposed to the merger.
The Senate Democrats also questioned the timing of another FCC rule change this year, in the context of the Sinclair-Tribune merger—an April decision, on the so-called UHF discount. The move directly preceded the announced deal between Sinclair and Tribune.
Senate Dems accused Pai of resurrecting a “historical relic [that] directly contradicts Congress’ intent” on broadcast ownership rules, in issuing the order. The two companies announced their proposed marriage just weeks after Pai’s UHF discount decision.
The decree was also the subject of an August letter from House Democrats critical of Pai’s FCC and the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger.
In that letter, lawmakers noted the numerous meetings between Pai and Sinclair executives, immediately after President Trump’s election last November.
The letter from House Democrats also highlighted Sinclair’s favorable coverage of Trump, deemed “must-run” by the company, in an order to its stations.
Senate Democrats mentioned neither Sinclair nor Tribune by name, though they did call the two companies’ proposed integration: “the largest proposed broadcast television merger in history.”
On Monday evening, the Senate is expected to approve of Pai’s appointment to chair the FCC. He had been named to lead independent agency in January by President Trump. In 2012, Pai had been given a five-year term to the FCC as a Republican commissioner.