WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is conducting an internal investigation to see if Chairman Ajit Pai improperly favored Sinclair Broadcasting with recent rule changes that allow broadcasters to own more TV stations.
A few weeks after the FCC voted along party lines last April to restore a rule that allows companies to “discount” the reach of their UHF holdings, Sinclair announced its merger with Tribune. That rule – called the “UHF discount” – allows major station groups to bulk up and still fall within media ownership limits.
Sinclair’s $3.9 billion deal would make it the largest broadcaster in the country, reaching about 72 percent of the U.S., but the size of the transaction would not have been possible without the FCC vote.
Democrats and public interest groups have questioned the timing of the rule changes, as well as Pai’s meetings with representatives of the company. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic appointee, called for an investigation at a congressional hearing in October.
And a group of Democratic senators, led by Maria Cantwell of Washington and Tom Udall of New Mexico, called for the FCC inspector general to look into the rule changes and the FCC’s review of the Sinclair-Tribune deal. The group suggested the existence of a “quid pro quo” relationship between Pai, the Trump administration, and Sinclair Broadcast Group.
“We have strong concerns that the FCC’s ongoing review of the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media may be tainted by a series of actions and events that raise questions about the independence and impartiality of the FCC,” the senators wrote in a letter to FCC Inspector General David Hunt.
The New York Times confirmed with Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) that a House investigation began last year. “For months, I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting,” Pallone said in a statement.
Pai responded in a letter to House Democrats insisting that neither his nor the FCC’s actions have been in the interest of individual companies.
“Whether I have been pushing for the revitalization of AM radio or fighting to ensure that broadcast television stations were treated fairly in the incentive auction proceeding, my actions have been motivated by my belief that a strong over-the-air broadcast service advances the public interest. They have not been fueled by a desire to help any particular company,” Pai wrote.
Sinclair’s merger is still awaiting approval from the Justice Department and the FCC. Even with the relaxed media ownership rules, the combined Sinclair-Tribune entity will be forced to sell about 10 stations. Recent filings have suggested that Sinclair may be seeking waivers under a new FCC rule that would allow common ownership of more than one top-four station in a market on a case-by-case basis.