While I would expect the American Cable Association and Dish to object to Sinclair’s proposed merger with Tribune, I am surprised that Newsmax and One America News are piling on. The right-wing news operations may be worried that a much larger Sinclair will blow past them in the race to supplant Fox News as the go-to conservative channel. But it doesn’t excuse their using the regulatory processes of the FCC to try to derail the merger and stunt Sinclair’s growth.
Poor Sinclair. Its proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune is being attacked even before petitions to deny are due at the FCC. Several entities have asked the FCC to postpone the Aug. 7 deadline for petitions and subsequent pleadings, charging that the transfer application is lacking on details and public interest justification.
I suppose that this is just good lawyering. If you are against something, you use every legal means possible to stall or derail it.
The scrappy American Cable Association of small operators and Dish Network head the pack of preemptive protesters and that’s to be expected. They hate the idea of a broadcaster like Sinclair gaining muscle mass and squeezing them harder for retransmission consent fees.
But what is surprising is the piling on by a couple of conservative news organizations — Newsmax and One America News (OAN) — that apparently believe that they are going to be outflanked by outsized Sinclair in the race to be the next Fox News Channel.
Newsmax, headed by journalist and Trump loyalist Christopher Ruddy, has a lively website that mostly aggregates news (some from dubious sources) for the conservative reader and a low-budget TV channel that is mostly a platform for rightwing pundits. It relies on a hodgepodge of outlets — OTT, broadcast subchannels, cable and satellite.
OAN is another FNC wannabe. Founded in 2013 by Robert Herring and his son Charles, it is mostly live news, albeit from the conservative perspective. As a news service, it fills a vacuum created when CNN became talky and Headline News turned into whatever the heck it is today.
Newsmax and OAN have some cause to be alarmed. Sinclair’s David Smith talked about launching a cable news channel when he bought WJLA Washington and the other Allbritton stations in 2014.
Those plans never materialized. And this week in an interview in Variety, Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley confirmed that a cable news network is off the table. “Our strength is local news,” he said. “The market for national cable news is very well served.”
But if its deal with Tribune goes through, Sinclair won’t need a cable network. It will have a national broadcasting platform that it could use to become the alternative conservative news brand.
As you have read here and elsewhere, it has already started down that road, pumping the conservative commentary of Mark Hyman and Boris Epshtyen and nationally produced features with a conservative slant in and around its local newscasts.
There has also been speculation that Sinclair might hire Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity — a move that could catapult them past Fox News, let alone Newsmax and OAN. I read those reports with much skepticism. Among other things, it would take millions of dollars a year to land just one of those two. To say the least, paying big for talent is not David Smith’s style.
Newsmax and OAN are not the first businesses to use government regulatory processes to try to stymie competition. It’s commonly done and one of the reasons to be wary of all regulations. They are subject to abuse.
ACA and Dish can throw around the words “public interest” all they want, but everybody knows that their only interest in the Sinclair-Tribune matter is stunting Sinclair’s growth in every which way they can for their own private interest.
But there is something contemptible when companies driven by an anti-government, anti-regulation ideology like Newsmax and OAN do it. The word hypocritical comes to mind.
In making its case, Newsmax even tries to put a conservative gloss on its objections by suggesting that the national TV ownership cap that limits Sinclair’s growth was conjured up by the Reagan administration “to protect the public against the concentration of media power that could endanger press freedom and media diversity.”
Total nonsense. Newsmax must think the FCC doesn’t know its own history.
The fact is, the Reagan FCC led by Chairman Mark Fowler voted in 1984 to sunset the national ownership caps on TV and radio in 1990. Aware the move was radical, the FCC created a transition period. Until 1990, it said, a single broadcaster would be limited to 12 TVs, 12 AMs and 12 FMs — five more stations per service than had been allowed.
However, the political blowback, much of it generated by Hollywood, was so strong that the FCC was forced to retreat five months later. It got rid of the 1990 sunset, made the 12-12-12 rule permanent and added a 25% household reach cap. Still, going from 7-7-7 to 12-12-12 was at the time a significant bit of deregulation.
But the point is, if the Reagan revolutionists had had their way, the national ownership cap would have disappeared in its entirety 27 years ago.
If Newsmax and OAN want to be forces in conservative TV news, they should stop worrying about Sinclair, and start worrying about what they can do to improve their products and capture share from Fox News while it’s still staggered by the revelations, scandals and defections of the past year.