How Trump’s FCC aided Sinclair’s expansion

How Trump’s FCC aided Sinclair’s expansion

Use of a regulatory loophole will allow Sinclair to reach 72 percent of U.S. households after buying Tribune’s stations.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is pictured | Getty
Sinclair Broadcast Group got a critical assist this spring from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who revived a regulatory loophole that will keep Sinclair from vastly exceeding federal limits on media ownership. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesSinclair Broadcast Group

Sinclair is expanding its conservative-leaning television empire into nearly three-quarters of American households — but its aggressive takeover of the airwaves wouldn’t have been possible without help from President Donald Trump’s chief at the Federal Communications Commission

Sinclair, already the nation’s largest TV broadcaster, plans to buy 42 stations from Tribune Media in cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, on top of the more than 170 stations it already owns. It got a critical assist this spring from Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who revived a decades-old regulatory loophole that will keep Sinclair from vastly exceeding federal limits on media ownership.

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The change will allow Sinclair — a company known for injecting “must run” conservative segments into its local programming — to reach 72 percent of U.S. households after buying Tribune’s stations. That’s nearly double the congressionally imposed nationwide audience cap of 39 percent.

The FCC and the company both say the agency wasn’t giving Sinclair any special favors by reviving the loophole, known as the “UHF discount,” which has long been considered technologically obsolete. But the Tribune deal would not have been viable if not for Pai’s intervention: Sinclair already reaches an estimated 38 percent of U.S. households without the discount, leaving it almost no room for growth.

The loophole is a throwback to the days when the ultra-high-frequency TV spectrum — the part higher than Channel 13 — was filled with low-budget stations with often-scratchy reception over analog rabbit ears. That quality gap no longer exists in today’s world of digital television, but under the policy that Pai revived, the commission does not fully count those stations’ market size when tallying a broadcaster’s national reach.

Sinclair’s expanding empire
Sinclair Broadcast Group owns stations in 81 markets, making it the nation’s largest TV broadcaster. The maps below show Sinclair’s footprint proportional to its total reach — which now covers an estimated 38 percent of U.S. households.

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