Sinclair Broadcast Group Has Deal To Buy Tribune Media's TV Stations

May 8, 2017
Originally published on May 9, 2017 8:11 am

Sinclair Broadcast Group, based outside Baltimore, announced Monday it had struck a $3.9 billion deal to obtain dozens of local television stations by acquiring Tribune Media.

The move, seen as likely to win approval of federal regulators with only modest concessions, would further propel consolidation in the industry. It would also offer a greater reach for one of the nation's most conservative media companies.

Though little known in major media centers, Sinclair's holdings are vast. It owns or operates more than 170 local television stations; Tribune Media owns 42 television stations in 33 markets, including the nation's top three: New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. With its new holdings, Sinclair would hold stations in seven of the biggest 10 markets.

The acquisition, which also requires Sinclair to assume $2.7 billion in debt, would give the company even greater leverage in negotiating deals with the major TV networks whose programming it carries. 21st Century Fox, Rupert Murdoch's television and entertainment company, explored making a run at Tribune Media with the Blackstone investment group, but ultimately decided against making a bid, according to an executive there. (Tribune's newspaper holdings were spun off in 2014 into a company ultimately renamed tronc.)

If history is any guide, the Smith brothers who together control Sinclair Broadcast will also pull news coverage on those stations in a more conservative direction and explore giving full rein to those beliefs on a national platform.

In the days after the September 2001 terror attacks, Sinclair required the news and sports anchors and even weather forecasters to read editorial messages explicitly conveying full support for the Bush administration's fight against terrorism. After some staffers raised objections at its flagship station in Baltimore, Sinclair officials allowed anchors there to say the message was from "station management."

In early 2004, Sinclair sent a reporting crew to Iraq, including its chief editorialist whose conservative commentaries are carried on dozens of Sinclair stations, in search of "overlooked" stories with a more positive bent. That summer, Sinclair declined to broadcast a special from Nightline on its seven ABC stations, because it ascribed anti-war motivations to anchor Ted Koppel's plan to read the names of all U.S. service members who had been killed in Iraq.

Former Sinclair Washington producer Lisa Modarelli later told me that decision hurt her ability to report on politics in the nation's capital. "Our sources didn't trust us anymore, even though we didn't make that decision," Modarelli said after she left the company. "They didn't want to work with us anymore because whatever we did, the story would turn out biased."

Later that year, then Sinclair Washington bureau chief Jon Leiberman openly opposed plans to air an hour-long program in the height of election season attacking Democratic nominee John Kerry for his service record in Vietnam and his anti-war stances afterward. Leiberman, who said in an interview that he had voted for George W. Bush in 2000, told me the show was "biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election." The company fired Leiberman the day after his interview, saying he was a disgruntled employee.

Similar patterns emerged in more recent years.

In 2012, the company paid for robocalls taped by one of Sinclair's Baltimore anchors to be placed to households around Maryland — with questions loaded against the positions of then Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Last fall, according to the Washington Post, Sinclair directed stations to carry certain "must-run" stories that reflected poorly on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Stories on Republican nominee Donald Trump were largely sympathetic or neutral, according to the newspaper.

In December, Politico reported that Jared Kushner had boasted to business executives that the Trump campaign had struck a deal giving access to Sinclair in exchange for more favorable coverage, a claim the chain denied.

There are what could be the stirrings of plans for a national platform — such as a cable television station.

Sinclair President and CEO Chris Ripley called the planned acquisition "transformational," in a statement, adding: "The Tribune stations are highly complementary to Sinclair's existing footprint and will create a leading nationwide media platform that includes our country's largest markets."

Sinclair recently signed former Trump campaign aide Boris Epshteyn as its chief political analyst. To lead its Sunday public affairs show, Sinclair hired former CBS correspondent Sharyl Atkisson, an investigative reporter whose scrutiny of the Obama administration won her the admiration of many conservatives.

Speculation has centered on possible conversion of Tribune's WGN America as a possible conservative news and opinion channel, or one of Sinclair's existing properties, though that could prove costly.

Sinclair's plans for acquisition, however, appear likely to sail through. Under its new chairman, Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission has approved new rules relaxing restrictions on how many stations a single company can own.

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Sinclair Broadcast Group is based in Maryland. This is a conservative company that owns more local TV stations than any other company in the country. And Sinclair is about to get bigger with a $3.9 billion deal with Tribune Media. If regulators approve this deal - and that's likely - Sinclair would own - or run more than 200 stations as NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: It is the opposite of a household name, but Sinclair is well known in both media and political circles. While it is publicly traded, the company is controlled by the four Smith brothers of Baltimore County. Their push for expansion has been impressive, but their reach has largely been limited to smaller to medium markets. The Tribune Media deal would give Sinclair entree to the nation's three largest markets in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. And it would have a place in seven of the nation's top 10 markets.

Sinclair agreed to take on $2.7 billion in debt to do the deal. Under the leadership of new chairman, Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission has relaxed regulations that would have made it harder for Sinclair to expand. The company's conservative philosophy plays out in the commentaries that run on many of its stations, and in its news coverage as well, which has created tensions within its newsrooms over the years. During last year's campaign, Sinclair gave Donald Trump sympathetic coverage and required stations to broadcast certain must-run stories that reflected poorly on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

In December, Politico reported that Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, boasted the campaign had traded access for favorable treatment by Sinclair, a claim the company rejected. The Smith brothers have produced programs to run on stations throughout its chain in the past, and they've toyed with the possibility of creating a national conservative outlet to compete with Fox News. A top Sinclair official called the deal transformational yesterday, suggesting that the acquisition may put them closer to those ambitions. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.