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Oppenheim: Growing A Bigger Bully

When you watch a local TV station, chances are you associate it with newscasters or on-air personalities. You might not think about the big, sometimes very big media company, that owns your local outlet.

For example - in Vermont, Gray Television now owns Channel 3, Hearst owns Channel 5, and Nexstar, the second largest TV Holding company in the country, owns channel 44.

The number one owner of TV outlets in the U.S is Sinclair Broadcast Group. Regionally, Sinclair owns stations in Syracuse, Albany, Providence and Portland. And now, Sinclair is attempting to buy Tribune Media, which would expand the company to 233 stations for a lopsided chunk of the market. I see two problems with this, and they’re both political.

First is that the Trump administration is entering a season of non-regulation at the FCC. The most recent rules have limited the size of any broadcast company to reach no more than 39% of the American audience. But now those rules are changing. The FCC could give Sinclair a so-called “UHF discount”, basically making the high-frequency UHF stations count less, and potentially allowing Sinclair to reach more than 70 percent of American households.

Keep in mind, the whole point of regulation is to prevent any broadcaster from getting too powerful. If this 3.9 billion dollar deal gets approved, that idea becomes history.

And second: Sinclair is known for requiring its stations to air right-wing content – like a daily segment called the “Terrorism Alert Desk”, slanted news reports that often have an islamophobic bent. Last year, Sinclair stations were required to air a piece that argued against voting for Hillary Clinton because the Democratic Party was historically pro-slavery.

That kind of top-down embrace of ideological content is not typical in local news. And at first, I found it hard to believe a corporate owner would be that aggressive, but reports of Sinclair’s tactics are well-documented. A recent segment of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO was entirely devoted to the subject of Sinclair Broadcasting – and it’s worth watching.

The story still isn’t well known, and that’s not surprising. Corporate take-overs in the TV business can escape wide attention. But remember, one of the founding ideals of broadcasting is to serve the public interest.

The Sinclair deal would do just the opposite.

And nobody wants a big bully to get even bigger.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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