By Joe Sheller / Guest Column
Back in July, comedian and media commentator John Oliver ran a segment on his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight” that was highly critical of the Sinclair Broadcast Group. The company, which owns or operates nearly 200 televisions stations, including KGAN and KFXA in Cedar Rapids, was accused of slanting local news programs by dictating content to its local stations.
Sinclair has made a notable practice of sending “must run” news segments to its stations. If you’re a viewer of CBS2 or FOX 28, odds are you’ve already seen the “Terror Alert Desk” and “Bottom Line with Boris” segments that occasionally air. (In full disclosure, the stations also air a weekly CBJ Report segment each Thursday.)
What particularly rankles many media critics, Oliver included, is the fact that Sinclair is poised to grow even larger. The company is attempting to buy more than 40 stations now owned by Tribune Media, including 39 of the country’s top 50 local stations, according to the Los Angeles Times.
I can understand Oliver and others being miffed at the prospect of the Sinclair deal. On KGAN, the company’s must-run segments often seem odd, especially in the morning newscast, when they pop into the program with little to no transition. Whether it’s the face of Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign official and White House aide who was hired by Sinclair as its chief political analyst, or a report from Circa, a Sinclair-owned website, the segments can feel like an alien intrusion in an otherwise local broadcast.
What’s more, the content from Sinclair corporate is almost universally right-wing in nature. The publicly traded company, headquartered in Baltimore, hires some of the most conservative journalists in America for its news segments. There are even rumors that the Tribune merger may pave the way for Sinclair to partner with Breitbart News to launch a new conservative competitor to Fox News.
On Oct. 19, the LA Times reported that Tribune shareholders had approved the company’s acquisition by Sinclair. It should be noted that any merger would not include iconic newspaper brands like the Chicago Tribune or the LA Times, both of which had previously been spun off into a new, separate company called Tronc (an abbreviation for “Tribune Online Content”).
To be honest, I can’t see the merger making a huge difference here in the Corridor. For one thing, we’ve been watching a Sinclair affiliate since the company bought KGAN in 1999. And none of our local TV stations are really locally owned, anyway – KCRG, formerly owned by The Gazette Co., was sold to Gray Television in 2015; KWWL is owned by Quincy Media, based in Illinois.
And while I don’t particularly care for the odd, abrasive segments Sinclair produces for its stations, I can still change the channel, just like any other viewer.
I do think it’s interesting that two years after KCRG’s sale, another Corridor TV station is caught up in the media consolidation trend that has been playing out nationally.
Of course, the Sinclair-Tribune merger has not closed yet – although even without it, Sinclair remains one of the largest television broadcasters in the country. The Federal Communications Commission still has to approve the deal and recently extended the time period it gave itself to consider it.
Still, the smart money seems to say that today’s conservative FCC is not likely to stand in the way of the deal. TV station ownership rules are being loosened and regulations interpreted in a way that is most generous to the TV industry.
That’s hardly surprising or new, however. The relaxing of FCC rules began during the Reagan administration, and even as there’s anxiety over the growing influence of one company over local TV broadcasts around the country, it’s also true that news consumption itself is shifting way from traditional outlets. Sinclair may succeed in its bid for the Tribune Company’s TV stations, but the age of the smartphone and YouTube has diluted that influence greatly.
Will Sinclair rise to challenge Fox News on the right? And if so, will there be more “Bottom Line with Boris”-style programming on KGAN and KFXA? Personally, I hope not. I would prefer to see more stories about Corridor people and businesses – the bread and butter local broadcasting was built upon.
Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at email@example.com.