Sinclair Broadcast Group will pay a $48 million civil penalty to settle lawsuits stemming from an attempted merger of Tribune Media in 2018. Sinclair will be paying the penalty and has agreed to “abide by a strict compliance plan” to close three Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigations.
According to the FCC, this is the highest civil penalty ever paid by a broadcaster in the agency’s history. The previous record for a civil penalty paid by a broadcaster was $24 million, which was levied against Univision in 2017.
Sinclair had sought to purchase Tribune Media Co. in a $3.9 billion deal, which would have made Sinclair a challenger to Fox News as a conservative media outlet. According to an NPR report, the Sinclair-Tribune merger would have created a media outlet in which “more than half, possibly even ¾ of the United States” would have been reached by a Sinclair station.
However, Tribune Media terminated the deal and filed suit against Sinclair. Tribune argued that Sinclair was engaging in “unnecessarily aggressive and protracted negotiations with the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission.”
Before Tribune scuttled the deal, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had issued a statement, stating that he had “serious concerns” about the merger. To go ahead with the merger, Sinclair had been required to sell off certain stations. Pai said that FCC investigations had uncovered evidence that some of the divestures would still “allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law.”
In December 2018, Nexstar Media Group, which owns KARK in Little Rock and KFTA in Fort Smith, announced that it would buy Tribune Media in a $6.4 billion deal. Nexstar divested from 21 television stations for a total of $1.33 billion.
According to a Nexstar news release, the transaction was valued at approximately $7.2 billion, including the assumption of Tribune Media’s outstanding debt.
“Sinclair’s conduct during its attempt to merge with Tribune was completely unacceptable,” Pai said in a statement. “Today’s penalty, along with the failure of the Sinclair/Tribune transaction, should serve as a cautionary tale to other licensees seeking Commission approval of a transaction in the future. On the other hand, I disagree with those who, for transparently political reasons, demand that we revoke Sinclair’s licenses. While they don’t like what they perceive to be the broadcaster’s viewpoints, the First Amendment still applies around here.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group owns KATV in Little Rock.