Last month, local television journalists across the country were told to read the same thing: a script from the owner of their stations, Sinclair Broadcast Group, declaring that “biased and false news” is extremely dangerous for democracy. It’s a talking point straight out of President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, and when Deadspin made a video syncing more than a dozen clips of anchors at Sinclair-owned television stations all reading the same thing in unison, it quickly went viral. Of course it did: Here was the Trump-supporting owner of the largest television empire in the country flexing its muscles, brazenly (if cartoonishly) trying to scare Americans into mistrusting all other sources of information.
It’s a dystopian thought. And it might foreshadow the type of practice that is likely to become more commonplace if Sinclair’s bid to acquire Tribune Media, which would give the company access to more than 72 percent of the national television audience in the country, is approved by federal regulators later this year. (Which is likely.) It should be heartening, then, that Sinclair’s antics are beginning to appall Americans who don’t regularly tune into its stations, right?
Perhaps, but it’s unlikely to cut into Sinclair’s bottom line. Lots of Americans may recoil at the optics of a conservative media company forcing local journalists to read Trumpian buzz phrases, particularly if they’re already concerned about how much power ideologue media owners have over what we know and don’t know and how the news is presented. But people who already watch a Sinclair-owned station probably won’t switch to another station because of these segments. And advertisers are unlikely to migrate either, especially in markets where Sinclair already owns two or three television stations and where taking your business elsewhere isn’t exactly easy.
To start, it’s important to understand what it means to have a local news station owned by Sinclair broadcasting. Although a channel may be branded as a Fox, ABC, NBC, or CBS station, that doesn’t mean that those companies own it. Rather, a television station operator, like Sinclair, often owns and operates the station, which has contracts with media companies to run their affiliate programming and brand their local news with the network. For example, Sinclair owns the ABC affiliate station in D.C., the Fox affiliate in Nashville, and the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas. And most people who watch the station probably don’t associate the owner with the brand of the station but rather think of it as an outgrowth of a national network.
So if people do catch word about how Sinclair required its anchors to recite scripted presidential bullet points across the country and want to stop watching Sinclair-owned channels, they might have a difficult time figuring out exactly which station to boycott. And, of course, there’s a strong chance that people who primarily tune into local news don’t also check national coverage—they might not be reading the news as it unfolds on Twitter and might not even hear about it. Besides, if someone thinks that the banter between the anchors of the ABC affiliate station in Gainesville, Florida, for example, is obnoxious and much prefers the anchors on the local NBC station, which happens to be owned by Sinclair, it will probably take a lot more than a weird script read on behalf of the station owner to get loyalists to change the channel. Plus, more people, no matter their political affiliation, watch local news than national or cable news, according to recent data from Pew. Even if CNN and Fox were both talking about this around the clock, a lot of local news fans might still not catch it.
And for local advertisers that pay Sinclair stations to run commercials, it’s unlikely they’ll migrate to another station if the audience isn’t moving. If an advertiser did do that, it could risk appearing partisan, which could stir a negative reaction from local conservatives. It’s not like advertisers necessarily buy commercial time on local news stations just because of the integrity of the station owner; they buy the time to reach an audience to promote their businesses. It’s true that Sinclair has faced consequences for its scale-tipping before, as it did in 2004 when it announced plans to force its stations to air an anti–John Kerry documentary days before the election. Left-wing media watchdog groups started a campaign to encourage local advertisers to boycott Sinclair stations, which did persuade a few businesses to pull their ads. But there are important differences between then and now: That incident carried the high emotional stakes of an encroaching election; this one may have partisan motivations, but it’s more subtle, insinuating shortcomings of other media rather than outright attacking a political candidate. And importantly, Sinclair has become a larger company in the intervening 14 years.
While this incident will likely breeze by, Sinclair’s top-down approach could eventually come back to haunt it. “What Sinclair does as a business model here is take local control from local stations,” said Christopher Terry, a journalism professor from the University of Minnesota who specializes in technology and media policy. It’s the same kind of business model championed by Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) after the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which lifted local limits on how many radio stations a single owner could hold in any one market. Clear Channel bought up radio stations across the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and as the company did so, it consolidated local news and music operations, replacing DJs with national playlists and local news with national segments. Radio became homogenized and boring just as the internet was becoming more accessible, and people across the country stopped tuning in as much. In March, iHeartMedia filed for bankruptcy.
Until recently, there was a federal rule that a single television station owner could not own more than one of the top four stations in a single market. One of the main ideas behind such media consolidation rules is that when one company owns too much media in a single area, it has too much control over what people who live in that area know, and that can help determine how people decide to vote or what issues they care about. You might think you’re changing the channel to get a different viewpoint, but if multiple stations are owned by the same company in one market, that might not be the case. In November, Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, worked to loosen that ownership limit when the agency voted to make it easier for one company to own up to two of the top four television stations in a single market. Pai is now being investigated by the FCC’s inspector general for potentially pushing to lift the media ownership rules to benefit Sinclair.
Sinclair is now trying to get federal approval to acquire Tribune Media, which would bump the number of television stations it owns nationally to 215 stations (Sinclair already owns 173 stations and Tribune owns 42). This is the same Sinclair that ordered its affiliate stations in March of 2017 to double the amount of airtime they give to segments by its chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide who faithfully parrots the administration’s line. The company has run into a slight roadblock, as federal officials are asking Sinclair to divest from some of the stations it owns in order to allay concerns over being too dominant in any single market.
But Trump is a fan of Sinclair, and tweeted his support of the television conglomerate Monday morning, criticizing other outlets for running stories about the scripted monologue it ordered its local stations read. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke,” tweeted Trump. And once Sinclair divests here and there to ease the concerns of Justice Department officials who are concerned about the scale of the merger, it is likely to get approval before the midterm elections in November. And it’s before elections when Sinclair broadcasting really stands to make a lot of money, since political ads are so lucrative.
“The X-factor in Sinclair’s ability to be profitable is their ability to control the political advertising market on local television going forward,” said Terry. And when Sinclair finalizes the deal and expands its audience, it could have more power to set the price for local political television ads across the country. And because of its size, issue groups and campaigns that want to run commercials on local television may not have much of a choice but to do business with Sinclair. We’ll see if we tune out then.