Sinclair, Nexstar Show How Big Can Be Better

Evidence is emerging that if station groups are allowed to scale up, they will become better broadcasters, pumping still more news and entertainment into the expanding TV ecosphere to the benefit of all —  viewers and advertisers. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is expected to move to loosen the ownership caps this year. Those opposed had better bring more to the debate than just theories about the inherent badness of bigness.

I’ve been advocating for the easing of the national ownership cap on TV stations for the better part of two decades based on two basic principles.

One is that the burden of proof for a regulation — interference in the natural workings of the market — falls on the government, and I have yet to see it produce compelling evidence that a station group covering most or all TV homes would harm the public in any significant way.

The second is that scale can strengthen station groups financially and give them the resources necessary to bring more and better services to the public. In other words, big media is good. That’s anathema to liberals who believe big is bad in all things except government and who have worked for decades to keep the lid on station groups.

I will confess that for the better part of two decades I have taken the second point primarily on faith. But now I believe that my faith has been rewarded. Evidence is emerging that if station groups are allowed to scale up, they will become better broadcasters, pumping still more news and entertainment into the expanding TV ecosphere to the benefit of all —  viewers and advertisers.

The prime example is Sinclair. Now right up against the FCC national ownership cap (39% of TV homes), the Baltimore-based group is doing things it could not possibly have done a decade ago.

As I discussed here a couple of weeks ago, it is building a national news organization that could one day take its place alongside those of the Big Four, CNN and Fox News (if it is allowed by the FCC to continue growing, of course).


It is doubling down on linear TV. It bought the Tennis Channel and revitalized it by using its clout to extend its cable reach. It has also launched Comet TV, Charge! and TBD, the last an attempt to reach elusive millennial viewers who may cotton to the idea of watching free TV.

Because of its size, Sinclair was also able to take the lead in developing ATSC 3.0, broadcasting’s best hope of reinvention and relevance in the next decade.

Without Sinclair driving the standards effort, and investing millions in it, I’m not sure that 3.0 would be nearly as far along or as capable as it is. As things now stand, the FCC will authorize the standard late this year and, soon thereafter, cutting-edge broadcasters (count Sinclair in) will put it on the air and offer new services and enhancements to old ones.

Broadcasting’s other great consolidator, Nexstar Media (also up against the cap), also supplies evidence on the value of bigness although not nearly as much as Sinclair. I suspect we will see more once it has fully digested Media General. It closed on that merger less than two months ago.

At the Borrell Local Online Advertising Conference in New York Monday, Nexstar’s Tom O’Brien outlined the many initiatives the company is undertaking to enhance spots sales with better measurement, Big Data and automated buying, and to exploit new distribution platforms like social, OTT and mobile apps.

A month ago, I wrote a story about how Nexstar is doubling the size the Washington bureau that it inherited from Media General from five to 10 persons. Those plans seem to be on course as it announced this week that it had hired a bureau chief, Bill Mondora, formerly of CBS Newspath.

Gray Television, the scrappy station consolidator that favors market dominance over market size (its biggest market is Knoxville, Tenn. [DMA 62]), is also using its increasing heft to raise its profile in Washington. I spoke to Bureau Chief Jacqueline Policastro about a story I am working on and was surprised to learn there were now six others in her crew.

And I got the impression from talking to her that the bureau would grow as her acquisitive station company did.

I should note that neither Nexstar nor Gray has national news ambitions. Their mission is to work for their stations, finding the local angle on national stories and keeping an eye on senators and House members representing the Gray markets.

Tegna is another one that bears watching. Reaching nearly a third of the country, it is developing its own entertainment programming, figuring it’s better than waiting for overpriced syndicated shows from Hollywood that are up against long odds. Its first big offering, T.D. Jakes, hasn’t made much of a dent in the Nielsens, but group is undaunted. It’s lining up some other innovative projects.

So, the evidence is piling up. As station groups get bigger they tend to do more — more entertainment, more news.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is expected to move to loosen the national and local ownership caps this year. He will face opposition at the FCC and in the courts from liberal media activists and perhaps broadcasters who fear being run over by the networks and consolidators like Sinclair and Nexstar.

But those opposed had better bring more to the debate than theories about the badness of bigness. They will be up against real-world experience.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (19)

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bob dotcomm says:

March 10, 2017 at 4:12 pm

Harry, good point about scale in broadcasting. I think we will see greater quality, more news, and, dare I say, even greater diversity, from bigger broadcasters because the market(s) will demand it. To whom much is given, much will be expected.

Angie McClimon says:

March 10, 2017 at 5:24 pm

Bigger is never better. Quality always suffers as the big groups are run by bean counters trying to save the company a buck anywhere possible. Add in duopolies and SSAs and quality suffers even more. And, in the case of Sinclair, these bigger groups have more outlets to spew their political views.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    March 11, 2017 at 12:50 am

    Yep, look how cellphone rates have gone up as all the locals were bought out…..What a minute, we don’t pay .35 cents a minute for calls and additional for Long Distance, not to mention daily roaming charges?

Cheryl Thorne says:

March 10, 2017 at 6:07 pm

Obviously you have never competed daily vs Nexstar!!!

    Wagner Pereira says:

    March 11, 2017 at 12:52 am

    Tells us the kind of market you work in.

Tim Darnell says:

March 10, 2017 at 9:09 pm

There are plenty of advantages to scale. You name several. There are some downsides too. It pushes out local ownership of stations, for one. It could lead to a situation where there are only three groups standing and only two groups competing in each market with all of the top six networks split between them. That leaves little room for local ownership to do more than fight for crumbs. I understand lifting the cap, but make it a trade off for going over the cap. Make the groups promise to have no more than one of the top 6 networks in each DMA. Have them get rid of any duopoly or sidecar stations in the DMA to encourage competion. In return, they can grow to 100% coverage. That might be a fair trade and lead to a great deal more competition in the marketplace, as well as innovation brought about by scale.

    John Livingston says:

    March 10, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    There is no local own TV station that ship has sailed years ago even if they do own TV stations it’s mainly low power stations that no one watches.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    March 11, 2017 at 12:47 am

    Local Ownership is over-rated. Just look the BS @RIDGELINETV IN CAPS spews here when over 80% of the people in the small counties his part time SD Analog 11 hour a day Tradio Cable Station voted for Trump.

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    March 11, 2017 at 6:43 am

    Wow… was that supposed to make any sense? Have you been hitting the bottle lately? (It was after midnight when you posted this incongruent, badly-worded sentence – if you call it that.) What does my area’s voting trends have to do with local TV station ownership? No, wait, I really don’t want to hear your convoluted answer… Hmm… but on second thought, I need something to laugh at and you never fail to provide the entertainment…

John Livingston says:

March 10, 2017 at 11:30 pm

I’m for the cap to go up and it’s going up no matter what those groups that lie to get headlines that there isn’t any competition blah blah blah and other baseless claims.

Cheryl Thorne says:

March 11, 2017 at 8:11 am

Someone should remove “Insider” from Comments permanently…

Cheryl Thorne says:

March 11, 2017 at 8:28 am

Remember the days when we had quality broadcasters and it was a privilege to work for ABC, CBS, NBC, Scripps, Meredith, Gillette, Storer…etc… Now we have Nexstar!!!!

Teri Keene says:

March 11, 2017 at 12:14 pm

Probably apples and oranges, but I’ve seen this in radio with Clear Channel and Cumulus and the bad management accompanying it, especially regarding the latter. Seen a lot of good people forced to go “on the beach” as a result. And look where they are now… nearly broke and fighting with creditors.

Cheryl Thorne says:

March 12, 2017 at 2:22 pm

Never apples and oranges when you have second rate managers like Nexstar has. They will learn a lot from the quality management from the Lin stations..just like Media General did…

Joel Reagan says:

March 13, 2017 at 10:28 am

I can just see NAB in five years – 10 people show up. Not a big fan of virtual monopolies in TV or radio. Its bad enough the networks use their programming as a bully pulpit to forward their skewed socio-political leanings. We don’t need three or four megacorps doing the same thing. If anything, the cap should be strengthened to the equivalent of a Ma Bell breakup.

    Robert Vincent says:

    March 14, 2017 at 9:04 am

    I just got a message from NAB housing that hotel rates were lowered for top tier properties and that many were not charging a resort fee. That’s very bizzare because the last time they did that was when Obama told people not to go to Vegas and NAB was like a county fair that year. I loved that year because I had waited to book my accomodations and I got into the Dessert Rose Resort for $600 per week with round trip airfare. It was my most favorite week in Vegas since I began going there in 1998. I did notice that last year at NAB the emphasis on the exhibit floor was the cloud solutions, the internet based news gathering appliances and software, and the bonded cellular applications. I guess this year will have more of those devices along with the usual culprits like camera and display makers.

Robert Vincent says:

March 14, 2017 at 8:59 am

What Sinclair has been able to do as the largest owner of television stations in the US, is go into a market, buy the maximum amount of media outlets allowed by law, and then condense, merge, and consolidate the resources into a single entity and mine out the assets, sell off the licenses, and then control at least 1/3 to 1/4 of the entire market media output. What it does for the consumer is limit competition, raise retrans fees, and gets us closer to a model where there will be NO free tv. It puts people like me closer to ending the traditional over the air tv experience and going with a total web based experience for news and a streaming solution for all of my television viewing. SInclair’s standard is the new ATSC 3.0 as they developed it to fit their business model and the manufacturers are now printing up the circuit boards to fit it. Sinclair’s new ATSC is a paid tv model. A pay to play one where there is little to no free viewable tv over the air. So the first round of a massive loss of viewership is of course rebanding as many choose simply to unplug the stick. Second round is the addition of the set top appliances with encrypted programming. I don’t look forward to tv in the USA, I see a dark time for the nation coming just like the last scene of ,”Terminator” with the storm brewing on the horizon.

    Nicole Baugh says:

    March 15, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    you should read up on some facts. What Sinclair has been doing is as you said playing by the law. Businesses are formed to make a buck and in this case inform the public. Many of the duel stations they have in one market only one of them carries news (the big four) so there is no bias within the entire marketplace.

    As far as atsc goes read up on it and what it is going to allow. To say there will be little no free tv with this model is so foolish. They don’t need to monitize this new technoligy by charging the viewer a nickle. It’s going to lead to less reliance on Nielson’s sample size of 10 per market, targeted ads (but is that to bias for you) data casting (could offer online services with no internet) …. If they do decide to charge money for content they will have to show it good. Content is king and people will pay for it if its premium but i don’t think they intend on creating premium HBO content.

Denise Daniels says:

March 15, 2017 at 11:08 am

More news doesn’t mean better news. It just means more of the same news repeated more.