WASHINGTON — On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to reinstate an obsolete loophole called the UHF discount that will allow broadcast conglomerates to exceed congressionally mandated national TV audience coverage limits.
Today, Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s largest television station conglomerate, announced a $240 million deal to buy 14 television stations owned by Bonten Media Group. Sinclair is also reported to be in negotiations to buy stations owned by Tribune Media Co., a move that would put Sinclair 30 percentage points over the national broadcast ownership cap, if not for the FCC’s move reinstating the UHF discount.
That discount means the FCC counts a UHF station’s viewership reach only half as much as the actual population covered by that station’s signal. Since the transition to digital television, there has been no disadvantage in coverage for UHF stations. In fact, UHF is better and stronger for digital television signals, not worse as it was in the analog broadcasting world. Nonetheless, the agency will again use that UHF discounted figure as a means to determine whether a broadcaster’s nationwide coverage falls under the 39 percent national audience reach ownership cap.
The vote came following press reports by Bloomberg News that Chairman Pai had conducted meetings with Sinclair executives days after the Nov. 8 presidential election. Pai was subsequently tapped by the Trump administration to lead the agency that oversees broadcast ownership limits.
Free Press CEO and President Craig Aaron made the following statement:
“This is a scandal. Sinclair has been boosting Trump and wooing Pai for months — and it’s paying off in the form of the looser limits Sinclair has long sought on how many TV stations the company can own. Sinclair has a track record of taking over stations, gutting news departments and airing conservative propaganda produced far from the local community.
“This proposed deal has the appearance of a quid pro quo. Sinclair has gone out of its way to boost Trump, praise his appointees and even hire his former spokespeople. Now they are cashing in. Chairman Pai likes to talk about getting rid of obsolete rules, yet here he is reinstating a rule with no technical justification just because it lets broadcast conglomerates skirt the law and expand their control over the nation’s airwaves.
“Local broadcast television is still the most important local news source for many people, particularly in low-income and Spanish-speaking communities. The last thing local communities need is fewer perspectives and cookie-cutter content pushing an ideological agenda. But that’s what Trump’s FCC is set on doing: delivering favors that line the pockets of conservative outlets offering the administration favorable coverage.”