The IBEW has joined with other
unions, consumer advocacy groups and defenders of a free and open press to
oppose Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media.
The proposed acquisition of Tribune and its 42 TV stations in 33 markets would create one of the largest broadcasting companies in the world when coupled with Sinclair’s existing 191 U.S. stations. The new company would have a presence in 108 markets, enabling it to wield enormous influence through its local news programs – many of them recorded and produced using IBEW technicians.
But the deal, valued at $6.6 billion overall, has stirred up unrest and opposition among cable and satellite companies, networks and even conservative media outlets, who have urged the Federal Communications Commission to delay or stop the sale altogether.
|Chuck Stein, an IBEW member at Sinclair station, WNWO, in Toledo, Ohio. Locals have great relationships with Sinclair at the local level, but almost no contact with executives, according to Local 245 Business Manager Larry Tscherne.
“I think it speaks to just how bad this deal is for consumers, workers, competition – all of it – that you’ve got so many groups from opposite sides of the spectrum coming together to oppose it,” said Director of Broadcasting and Telecommunications Martha Pultar. “This isn’t about ideology. It’s about making sure American consumers have a variety of news options to choose from and about keeping so much power out of the hands of a single company.”
That would be bad news for workers and consumers, International President Lonnie R. Stephenson wrote in a letter to the FCC opposing the deal. “Concentrating this amount of media ownership into one company is inconsistent with existing FCC regulations,” he wrote. “Granting one company such massive market share significantly reduces competition and consumer choice… and is antithetical to the concept of a free and independent press.”
Christopher Ruddy, CEO of right-wing news outlet Newsmax – and no fan of unions – agreed. “It simply makes no sense,” he wrote, for the FCC to move the process along so quickly. “This is raising so many serious concerns about the concentration of media power.” He was joined by the pro-Trump One America News Network and The Blaze, a conservative news and entertainment network started by former Fox News host Glenn Beck.
Milwaukee Local 715 Business Manager Mark Biedenbender, who represents some of the nearly 350 IBEW technicians working for Tribune companies, says his six-station market is a prime example of the potential destructive potential of the Sinclair takeover. WITI, the region’s top station and a Tribune company, employs about 28 IBEW members. “Sinclair owns two of the other five, and those are both nonunion,” he said. “You’re talking about one company owning half the stations in this one fairly small market, and it’s concerning to me as a news guy. The mission of ‘live, local, late-breaking’ is under attack here.”
Toledo, Ohio, Local 245 Business Manager Larry Tscherne represents workers under one of the IBEW’s nine bargaining agreements with Sinclair, totaling a little more than 100 members. “Honestly, I wish we had a relationship with Sinclair,” he said. “It’s not like in the construction or utility branches where the union partners with contractors or energy companies to achieve success. We negotiate with lawyers – they don’t even allow the station managers in the talks.”
Tscherne says Sinclair likes to “hub,” or share resources between its stations, which almost always results in staff reductions, particularly among engineers, and the company refuses to allow dues deductions, putting the burden on members to remember to stay current with the local. “None of this is to say we don’t have great relationships with station managers and local folks,” he said. “We do, but as far as the Sinclair executives are concerned, I don’t know them at all.”
Until recently, the law would have prevented Sinclair from even bidding for Tribune. Sinclair already reaches 38 percent of U.S. households with stations it owns, a number perilously close to the legal limit of 39 percent imposed by Congress. But Sinclair’s lobbyists were able to create a loophole. In April, Trump’s FCC, under Chairman Ajit Pai – a former Verizon Communications attorney – reinstated an arcane rule known as the “UHF discount,” which dated from the days before digital television when there was a disparity between UHF and more powerful VHF signals. Under the rule, UHF, or higher frequency, less powerful, stations counted half when calculating for the 39 percent market saturation. Lower frequency VHF stations, usually major networks on the lower end of the television dial, were calculated at full value.
Not surprisingly, before the rule change, Sinclair’s takeover of Tribune would have created a company with a calculated reach of more than 72 percent of U.S. households, nearly double the legal limit. With the UHF discount back in place, the expanded company still comes in just under the threshold.
“There was funny math created to allow the count to come up to still be below 39 percent, wink wink” former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told Politico. Pai’s close relationship with Sinclair – he met with representatives multiple times between Donald Trump’s election and inauguration early this year – has critics questioning the timing and necessity of the rule change.
Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry, which represents large media companies like Amazon, Google, Dish, Netflix and Facebook, summed up the case against Sinclair. “Allowing this centrally controlled broadcast behemoth that has a history of cutting local news staff and adversely affecting independent, local TV stations, would be detrimental,” he wrote. “Anyone who values decentralized government control, states’ rights and independent voices should oppose this merger that would harm citizens and weaken our democracy.”
“The bottom line,” Stephenson said, “is that this merger isn’t in the interest of consumers, it’s not in the interest of workers, and it runs counter to the idea that there should be a diversity of options of where we get information about our government and the people who run it. Putting so much power in the hands of one company is dangerous, plain and simple, and that’s why we’re urging the FCC to kill this sale and let Tribune find another buyer.”