Sale of Charleston ABC affiliate WCIV raises issue for FCC — again

Sinclair Broadcast Group is seeking to buy WCIV-TV in Mount Pleasant (above), along with six other ABC affiliates and a cable station in Washington D.C., for $985 million from the Allbritton family. Buy this photo

The proposed sale of Charleston’s ABC affiliate has the whiff of a late-summer rerun.

The lead character, again, is Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. The company has played a recurring role in a drawn-out controversy over the number of TV signals that broadcasters can own in smaller media markets.

The abridged version goes like this: Sinclair has grown into a broadcasting industry powerhouse by openly thumbing its nose at Uncle Sam’s ownership limits. It has argued for years that those rules are outdated and arbitrary.

Maybe so. But the Federal Communications Commission still regulates the public airwaves. And its rulebook still bans TV “duopolies,” meaning individual broadcasters can’t own multiple signals in areas with eight or fewer stations. Charleston falls within that group.

But Sinclair has mastered the art of circumventing the FCC’s restrictions, as exemplified by its local operations. The Hunt Valley, Md.-based company owns one Charleston area station outright: WMMP-TV. It bought the MyNetworkTV affiliate in 1998.

But since then, Sinclair also has been making programming decisions, selling air time and otherwise running WTAT-TV in North Charleston. On paper, Cunningham Broadcasting Corp. owns the local Fox carrier. Cunningham is what Sinclair has described as a “sidecar” business with close ties to its own operations. Critics have derided such cross-ownership arrangements as “covert consolidation.”

Sinclair’s willingness and ability to pull off this end-run has those critics steaming. Their main beef is that “shadow duopolies” and looser TV ownership limits in general give the viewing public, which owns the airwaves, fewer choices of competing news and information sources.

The debate could get more complicated now that Sinclair annnounced July 29 that it wants to buy Mount Pleasant-based WCIV-TV 4. The longtime owner put on the ABC affilate and others on the block earlier this year.

A potential fly in the ointment: Unlike WMMP, a niche cable carrier that Sinclair plans to sell, WTAT and WCIV are mainstream broadcasters that operate their own semi-competing news programs — at 10 and 11 p.m.. respectively.

Complicating matters, the local Fox affiliate’s nightly report is handled by anchors and reporters from yet another Charleston station — Raycom Media’s WCSC-TV Channel 5. Another wrinkle is that Sinclair CEO David Smith and his family members, including other senior Sinclair executives, are seeking to acquire WTAT-TV outright from the Cunningham sidecar.

The FCC, which includes South Carolina’s Mignon Clyburn, had been signaling that it would update its TV ownership rules after years of hemming and hawing.

The ending seems pretty straightforward, and it can go one of two ways. The commission can side with Sinclair and allow the dual-ownership deals to stand. Or it could banish them all together.

Anything but a cliffhanger.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.

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