FCC’s Heavy Hand With Nexstar And WPIX Is Misguided, Out-Of-Date

Harry Jessell

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel is in a position to do much good for TV journalism, but she chooses to do harm.

On March 21, the agency fined Nexstar $1.2 million for exceeding the 39% national TV ownership cap by six points though its de facto control of WPIX New York. In addition to paying the fine, Nexstar must sell the station or a passel of stations in smaller markets to dip back under the cap.

I presume Nexstar will fight the fine and divestiture, and we can hope that it finds relief at the FCC or in the courts.

When Nexstar bought the Tribune group in 2019, it spun off WPIX and other stations to avoid any entanglements with the ownership restrictions that might hold up the $7.2 billion deal.

Two years later, with the approval of the FCC, Nexstar’s sidecar station group Mission Broadcasting bought the station from Scripps.


Like other sidecar groups and stations, Mission was created by Nexstar to circumvent the FCC ownership limits in 26 markets. Mission has separate ownership, but for all practical purposes, it functions as a subsidiary of Nexstar. Nexstar couldn’t buy WPIX without exceeding the national ownership cap, but its alter ego Mission could.

Such arrangements, in various forms, have grown in popularity over the past few decades with the blessing of the FCC. Today, they are deeply embedded in the fabric of the radio and TV businesses.

With this latest action, the FCC is now saying Nexstar’s control of Mission has gone too far, at least in New York. Based on its “investigation,” it says Nexstar, not Mission, is actively in charge of all WPIX’s programming, personnel and finances.

As I see it, if Nexstar is guilty of de facto control of WPIX, then the FCC is guilty of post de facto enforcement of its rules. It’s fundamentally unfair to OK the Mission-WPIX deal in 2020 and then come back two years later and declare the setup is an egregious violation of its rules.

When Mission bought WPIX, everybody — every person with an ownership interest in broadcasting, every FCC Media Bureau staffer, every communications attorney, every TV trade reporter — knew that Nexstar would be calling the shots.

Even FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr knew. “[I]t is concerning to me that the FCC cites as evidence of control those features of the relationship that the FCC previously signed off on,” he said in a brief statement. “We need to be careful that we do not undermine reasonable reliance on prior FCC decisions.”

For Rosenworcel to now say she is shocked, shocked at what is going on in the back room is disingenuous.

So, what is her purpose? We know that she doesn’t like station consolidation, either the de jure or the de facto kinds. I think the antipathy comes from having grown up in the Democratic party, which has always been wary of broadcasting even in its diminished state.

She started last year by blocking the big Tegna-Standard General merger and ended it by tightening up the ban against owning or operating two Big Four network affiliates in the same market. The latter move slammed into reverse nearly a half century of the FCC’s gradually easing the ownership limits.

She knows a big fine sends a signal to other broadcasters playing around the edges of the ownership rules.

Retransmission consent may also be a factor. Rosenworcel has been showing bias against broadcasting in its battle with cable over the fees, and keeping the lid on stations groups is one way of weakening their leverage in retrans negotiations.

The FCC just fined Nexstar $720,000 for alleged misbehavior in retrans negotiations with Hawaiian Telecom. And, oddly, it fined Mission $150,000 for its dealings over WPIX with Comcast even though it has determined that Mission delegated retrans duties along with everything else to Nexstar.

Let’s concede for the moment that the Nexstar really did overstep, that it went too far in usurping Mission’s authority. I would still argue that Rosenworcel penalty is excessive as it fails to consider the results of Nexstar’s micro-management of the station. By any meaningful measure, it has benefited not only New Yorkers, but also viewers across the country.

Nexstar has kept WPIX’s low-rated news going, even though New York is crowded with well-entrenched and capable rivals, including the Big Four O&Os and cable’s NY1.

WPIX is producing 10 hours of local news a day, not counting a local sports show each evening. I don’t know — and Rosenworcel doesn’t know — whether a new owner without the resources of the nation’s largest station group could sustain news at such a level.

The station also serves as a vital hub for Nexstar’s still fledgling NewsNation cable network. The economies from having major local and national news operations in one place help make both possible.

Aside from news, Nexstar needs WPIX as an anchor for The CW, which the group rescued from near extinction. You simply can’t have a broadcast network without a lock on the top three markets.

Local news! National news! A free broadcast sports and entertainment network! Rather than a regulatory noose, Rosenworcel should be hanging the FCC Medal of Broadcasting Excellence around Nexstar CEO Perry Sook’s neck.

When Nexstar challenges the fine, Rosenworcel needs to lighten up. I suggest the FCC reduce the penalty to a warning and extract a promise from Nexstar that it will put more distance between it and Mission in New York as well as the other 25 Mission markets.

Rosenworcel needs to get her head out of the FCC rulebook and theoretical notions of competition and diversity of voices and look at the real-world impact Nexstar and her misguided out-of-date attitudes are having on TV journalism.

Harry A. Jessell is editor at large of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted here. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (9)

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OldSchool says:

April 1, 2024 at 8:57 am

Sounds like our Jessica is more interested in a “State Run” broadcast facility. The FCC opened the door years ago and now with Rosenworcel following orders from the swamp and their fear of media the rules will be changed to serve a political narrative not the viewers and owners.

Paul Greeley says:

April 1, 2024 at 9:12 am

Jessell explains the situation so clearly that it’s hard to argue with his assessments.
Paul Greeley

Hopeyoumakeit says:

April 1, 2024 at 9:31 am

They openly broke the rules that small station groups have to abide by. Monopolies are not helping broadcast TV. Broadcasting monopolies are designed to concentrate local profits in big C-Suite corporate offices. I was there when the 50+-station group took over our 20+-station group. All we saw were layoffs and a step backward in the production and content quality of our local news. We were in a top 10 market, so the capital redirection argument does not hold water either. We had never seen weather knock us off the air ( for hours) until the big group took over. Democrats understand that capitalism does not work without competition. Monopoly is not capitalism. 5 white guys owning 80+ % of all TV stations is not good for this country, civically or economically.

Former Producer says:

April 1, 2024 at 9:41 am

I know it’s April 1st, but this op-ed sadly does not appear to be an April Fool’s joke.

Harry, you are a fool if you believe a $720,000 fine is “excessive” for Nexstar. The company made $4.9 billion in revenue in 2023. Its CEO, Perry Sook, made $39.3 million in pay and other compensation for 2022 (latest available data). Nexstar could easily pay this fine with the loose change hiding in Perry’s couch.

To use your words, let’s concede for the moment that a $720,000 fine is really “excessive” for a billion-dollar company like Nexstar. I would still argue that the fine is necessary because Nexstar, as a broadcaster that uses the public airwaves, is obligated to operate in the public interest. Monopolizing said public airwaves does not serve the public interest. It only serves the shareholders’ interest.

Don’t blame the FCC for the current woes of TV journalism. Nexstar and other profit-driven companies are to blame. Even someone with a pro-broadcast industry bias such as you, Harry, should be able to see that.

tvn-member-3073837 says:

April 1, 2024 at 10:21 am

I would like to associate myself with Harry’s remarks, and note that Chairwoman Rosenwercel has eclipsed erstwhile Chairman Tom Wheeler in disdain for the broadcast industry, which is no small feat. Her activist denial of Standard General – Tegna, which would have created the largest minority-owned broadcast group in history, not only was a travesty against FCC policy and procedure, but was just mean-spirited. That despite lip-service to “diversity of voices” and “diversity of ownership”. Today, Nexstar is only one of two major broadcasters to have divested broadcast assets to a minority owner. Sinclair is the other. And these two have been in Rosenworcel’s crosshairs ever since she assumed the chair, perhaps for other reasons. When I served as Legal Advisor on the 8th Floor, the Commissioner was known as a passionate, but benign, advocate for innovation, investment and technology, although carrying water for those interested in accelerating broadcast’s early demise. Today, her positions are far less benign, much to the detriment of consumers and an iconic broadcast industry that is struggling to survive against threats from those industries the chairwoman chooses to advance.

tvn-member-3073837 says:

April 1, 2024 at 10:23 am

Adonis Hoffman, former Legal Advisor and Chief of Staff to Commissioner Clyburn – last comment

jcrollman says:

April 1, 2024 at 11:57 am

Does the FAA’s poor aviation oversight of Boeing for the past 20 years mean we should tolerate doors blowing away on planes midflight going forward? Should we continue pushing opioids on our population because the FDA became cuddly bedfellows with big pharma during the Bush administration? Obviously not. Just because oversight was reduced to crap doesn’t mean the rules are not in place for good reason. It sounds to me like Rosenworcel is attempting to right the ship. If you want to argue the rule shouldn’t be there, feel free to make that argument. But don’t blame her appropriately enforcing the rule.

Cosmo says:

April 1, 2024 at 1:51 pm

Hopeyoumakeit; I missed the law that said only “white guys” can buy stock in a publicly traded company.

[email protected] says:

April 2, 2024 at 12:52 am

Wrong like always HopeYouMakeIt Harry is right about The FCC abusing it’s power. Jessica is on a power trip thinking that it’s still the 1960s with only 3 or 4 channels which broadcast has competition with Big Tech and the FCC wanting to keep outdated rules in place which isn’t right. I think Nexstar will win since there suing the FCC as they should the courts will see it that Nexstar is right and that the FCC overstep in there rulings.

The FCC isn’t ever going to ever get back to localism as Jessica is claiming what will happen is that Apollo like groups will be buying TV stations and run them into the ground in my opinion. Wrong again HopeYouMakeit 5 white guys don’t own the broadcast TV station in 80% you just make it up and can’t back it up either.