Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai announced yesterday morning he has “serious concerns” about Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media Company, a deal which would add 42 Tribune stations from some of America’s top markets to what’s already the largest station group in the U.S.
Pai’s “serious concerns” are being expressed even after the Baltimore-based station group offered to sell off 21 stations, including WPIX in New York, in an effort to finally gain approval from the government. But apparently that might not be enough.
“Based on a thorough review of the record, I have serious concerns about the Sinclair-Tribune transaction,” Pai said in a statement. “The evidence we’ve received suggests 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.”
So what has changed? According to reports from Politico, one of the assets that Sinclair is considering divesting in order to get the deal done is powerhouse WGN in Chicago. Baltimore-area businessman Steven Fader, a business associate and friend of Sinclair executive chairman David Smith, would reportedly be the party purchasing the asset. The FCC feels Smith selling the asset to his friend and business associate presents a problem.
(Full disclosure: Yours truly has ties to the Fader family.)
Other issues with Sinclair’s plan that are raising eyebrows at the FCC are potential deals to sell its stations in Dallas and Houston to Cunningham Broadcasting, another party with close ties to the Smith family.
Both Sinclair and Tribune came to a deal back in May 2017, and while the approval process has been an unusually lengthy one, most experts felt the merger would eventually get the go-ahead due to President Trump’s public comments praising the media company, which boasts a conservative-leaning, anti-mainstream media news operation.
Sinclair chief revenue officer Rob Weisbord spoke with Adweek in April about the status of the deal, saying, “It’s still alive. We’re waiting on the government to make their decisions. We are cautiously optimistic that something will be closed in the second quarter, but it’s all in the hands of Department of Justice right now.”