Opponents line up to block Sinclair Broadcast Group’s plan to buy Charleston’s WCIV-TV
The proposed sale of Charleston’s ABC station is generating some static within the TV industry.
The latest group to come out against the deal is a national trade organization representing small and midsized cable television companies.
The American Cable Association said last week that the sale of Mount Pleasant-based WCIV-TV 4 to Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. “will reduce competition and harm consumers.”
That follows formal protests from several other organizations. All point to Sinclair’s trademark loophole strategy of setting up “sidecar” businesses to skirt rules that prohibit a single broadcaster from owning multiple TV stations in markets like Charleston.
That tactic, which has enabled the Maryland company to expand into a broadcasting powerhouse, is drawing fresh scrutiny.
Sinclair’s latest deal provided the ammunition. The company announced in July that it is paying $985 million for WCIV and six other ABC stations, along with a cable outlet in Washington, D.C., from Allbritton Communications Co.
If the government approves the sale, Sinclair would own Channel 4 outright and control WTAT-TV 24, the local Fox affiliate, through a closely affiliated business.
Furthermore, the company has said it plans to continue running a third Charleston station it now owns but is looking to sell, WMMP-TV, under a deal with the buyer. Sinclair has owned the local MyNetworkTV carrier since 1998.
The blowback over what critics have called “covert consolidation” picked up this month.
Washington, D.C.-based media reform group Free Press, for example, filed a joint petition with Put People First on Sept. 13 asking the Federal Communications Commission to deny the sale.
Faye Steuer, a Mount Pleasant resident who belongs to Free Press, said she opposes the deal “because we need diverse, accurate, comprehensive, probing sources of news in order to make wise decisions that keep our democracy intact and healthy.”
“It’s highly unlikely that having two major local TV broadcasters owned and controlled by the same company will enhance the depth, breadth, or overall quality of local news,” Steuer wrote in a letter to The Post and Courier, whose parent company owns 13 TV stations outside South Carolina. “We deserve better.”
The American Cable Association weighed in Monday, saying in a statement that Sinclair is seeking virtual ownership of two of the “Big Four” in Charleston.
“Under FCC rules, the duopoly ownership of more than one of the four most highly rated stations in a local market — typically, the affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — is prohibited,” it said.
The Pittsburgh-based group’s concerns are less about democratic principles and more about the bottom line. It said if the deal is approved, its members would be harmed because Sinclair-controlled outlets could work together when negotiating retransmission fees.
Those payments have become a big revenue source in the business. In exchange for programming, networks have started charging station owners, which, in turn, have been seeking fees from cable operators and satellite providers that carry their signals.
“Sinclair’s intent is as clear as it is anti-competitive — to gain insurmountable bargaining leverage over ACA members and stage, when needed, massive and strategically timed blackouts to enhance the receipt of windfall profits,” CEO Matthew M. Polka said in statement.
Polka’s group is asking the FCC to either block the sale or impose conditions to prevent the Sinclair stations from colluding.
The company referred questions to finance chief David Amy, who didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.