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Today, Public Knowledge and Common Cause filed with the Federal Communications Commission a Request to Hold In Abeyance on the Sinclair-Tribune merger pending the outcome of the D.C. Circuit’s review of the FCC’s Order reinstating the UHF discount.
FCC rules limit the national audience reach of any broadcaster to approximately 39 percent of the country. In 2017, the FCC restored the “UHF Discount,” a rule which discounted the audience reach of UHF stations by 50 percent (the UHF discount had been repealed during the Obama Administration). Without the UHF discount, Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune would reach 72 percent of U.S. households. Even with the discount, Sinclair would reach about 45 percent of U.S. Households.
Last April, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit heard oral argument challenging the FCC’s restoration of the UHF discount and expressed considerable skepticism that it would survive judicial review. One of the judges on the panel, Judge Millet, went so far as to suggest that “maybe what the Commission would do is just not authorize anything” until the status of the National Ownership Limit is resolved.
The FCC is currently seeking comment on Sinclair’s proposed divestiture plan under the UHF discount to reduce its post-merger audience reach to 39 percent. The Request to Hold In Abeyance filed today asks the FCC to hold any further action on the proposed merger -- including seeking additional comment on Sinclair’s current divestiture plan -- until after the D.C. Circuit reaches a decision on the UHF discount.
The following can be attributed to Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge:
“If the FCC approves the transaction, and afterward the D.C. Circuit eliminates the UHF discount, Sinclair would be almost 20 percent over the National Ownership Limit. Forcing Sinclair to come into compliance with the law after it closes its deal with Tribune would mean either forcing a massive sell-off of stations -- something very complicated to manage and difficult to enforce -- or letting a new, merged Sinclair have unprecedented market power over the public airwaves. Delaying a decision on Sinclair until the D.C. Circuit decides the UHF discount is basic common sense, and essential to protecting the public interest.”
You may view our Request to Hold here.