Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. began pursuing Charleston's ABC television station last July.
Nearly a year later, it's still chasing the elusive deal.
The company made its latest move last week, when it announced it would shed two stations, including the local Fox TV affiliate, in an effort to persuade wary regulators to greenlight the deal.
The back story behind the reshuffling centers on Sinclair's quest to buy seven ABC stations from Allbritton Communications Co. The $985 million deal includes WCIV-TV in Mount Pleasant.
When the acquisition was announced last summer, Hunt Valley, Md.-based Sinclair said it planned to finalize it by the end of 2013.
But it's proven to be a hard sell. The Federal Communications Commission has been scrutinizing the broadcaster's longtime practice of forming closely affiliated "sidecar" businesses that have enabled it to buy and control multiple TV stations in markets all over the country, including Charleston.
Critics of the strategy have complained that it's a way to sidestep federal ownership limits.
As regulators see it, the Charleston piece of the Allbritton deal is problematic. The reason is that Sinclair already owns one local station outright, MyNetworkTV affiliate WMMP-TV, and all but owns another, WTAT-TV, the local Fox station.
Both operate from the same building on Arco Lane in North Charleston.
The Allbritton acquisition ran into stiff regulatory headwinds last fall, when the Department of Justice requested more information.
In an effort to push the deal through, Sinclair said it had hired a firm to unload WMMP to an independent buyer, but none has surfaced. It also said its employees would stop selling airtime for and otherwise running WTAT for Cunningham Broadcasting Corp., which owns the station license.
Sinclair revised the terms of the Allbritton deal again Monday to appease the FCC. It said it would sell Cunningham the "non-license" assets of Charleston's Fox network affiliate. Sinclair also is divesting as another station in Harrisburg, Pa., to Media General. The two deals are valued at $97.4 million.
A question now is how the FCC will react to this latest concession. The commission could question the fact that Cunningham isn't exactly an independent third party buyer. It's one of those sidecar companies that have been causing Sinclair so much grief of late. It's owned by the family of Sinclair CEO David Smith.
The Maryland-based TV giant is taking steps to distance itself from the businesses it's selling, saying it "will not guarantee the debt of or provide sales services" for the two stations.
Sinclair now hopes to close the Allbritton deal by October, assuming the FCC agrees that the latest offer is satisfactory.
Contact John McDermott at 937-5572
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