Sinclair hit with a record $48 million fine for its botched attempt to purchase Tribune Media

Regulators said Sinclair planned to make it appear that it had divested in required areas but would actually still control the stations.

May 6, 2020
Category: Business & Work

Late Wednesday, Sinclair Broadcast Group agreed to pay a record $48 million fine to the Federal Communications Commission for Sinclair’s conduct while trying to buy Tribune Media in a deal that fell through partly because of FCC concerns.

Sinclair, which owns 191 TV stations across the country, tried to buy Tribune Media for $3.9 billion in 2018. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called parts of the deal troubling and cause for “serious concern” after the commission discovered Sinclair had not been forthcoming about how it would divest some stations as required by FCC regulations. Regulators said Sinclair planned to make it appear that it had divested but instead would still control the stations.

“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 President and CEO Chris Ripley tried to put a brave face on the historic FCC fine, actually thanking the FCC for the costly agreement.

“Sinclair is pleased with the resolution announced today by the FCC and to be moving forward,” Ripley said in a statement. “We thank the FCC staff for their diligence in reaching this resolution. Sinclair is committed to continue to interact constructively with all of its regulators to ensure full compliance with applicable laws, rules, and regulations.”

This is the second multi-million fine the FCC leveled at Sinclair. In December 2017, the Commission fined the broadcaster more than $13 million for failing to make required disclosures for the paid programming. That, too, was the largest fine ever levied against a broadcaster for not identifying a commercial as paid content. In that case, Sinclair aired what appeared to be news stories — in some cases, 30-minute programs — but was actually content paid for by the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

This penalty is twice the prior record for a broadcaster, which was the $24 million paid by Univision in 2007 for airing children’s soap operas instead of required educational programming.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.