Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Sin of Sinclair

The death of local television news is coming.  And the Federal Communications Commission is doing all it can to help it along.  Just as the Internet has gutted local newspapers, the FCC is looking the other way as local stations, which use the public airwaves, are rapidly turned into cookie-cutter, profit centers, unconcerned about the communities they are pledged to serve.

I started working in television news in 1978.  The ownership rules limited groups to holding no more than seven stations.  Then President Reagan came along and those rules were loosened to 12 stations.  The FCC also began to look the other way when it came to the rules which forced television stations to share the various voices that made up its community.  Between the FCC and the surge of consultants and the crapola that too many of them offer, local TV news began a decades long slide.

I worked for a "cheap" group, Taft.  Long gone from the television landscape, Taft managed to run good news operations.  Taft was one of the first companies to take advantage of the looser ownership rules.  Flush with cash and great stations in growth markets, it became a target.  The result was a hostile takeover, a splintered group and new ownership left with a billion dollars in debt.

The bulk of the former Taft stations didn't recover from the 1988 financial bombing until FOX, yes Rupert Murdoch's FOX, purchased the group.  It was about this time that station groups run by accountants were swallowing up stations with abandon.  The FCC had further loosened ownership rules so along came Nexstar and Sinclair, buying TV stations at break neck speed.

By the mid-1990's there were only a handful of ownership groups worth a damn.  The stations owned and operated by the networks, Cox, Belo, Gannett, Hearst, and Meredith enjoyed reputations as good groups to be a journalist.  20 plus years later that list is shrinking.  The O and O's are still held in good regard as is Cox.  Hearst saved itself by buying out its shareholders and going private.

Gannett is now Tegna and has joined the race to the bottom with other big groups such as Nexstar and Sinclair.  Yet as bad as some of these groups are, none can compete in absolute awfulness with Sinclair.  The company holds an ultra-conservative bent that makes FOX look liberal.  It has been gobbling up stations for the past 25 years and wants to add even more stations by adding the Tribune group.

25 years ago television groups were limited to 12 stations.  Sinclair currently owns 173 stations in 80 of America's 210 television markets.  The Tribune deal would add 42 more stations to its massive groups.  The FCC stands ready to approve this deal but a handful of conservative groups are howling about the acquisition as are a murderers row of liberals.

The FCC may require Sinclair to sell off a handful of stations to get this deal through, but it will go through.  When that happens, I will wait for the other shoe to drop.  Sinclair is up to its eyeball in debt.  The company came dangerously close to bankruptcy in 2008 when the economy tanked.  The next hiccup in the economy will be Sinclair's undoing.  The viewers won't be the only ones getting screwed.  The stockholders will too.

Sinclair is marching toward centralized news.  They are shuttering local newsrooms and offering "local" news from other stations located miles and miles away from the communities they are mandated to serve.  Look at the ratings of these awful Sinclair owned stations and they without fail rank at the bottom.  The stations are poorly equipped.  The employees, save for upper management, is poorly compensated.  And yet the FCC looks the other way while Sinclair's competitors look and begin to wonder if this approach to "television news" is the way, the future.  It isn't, it's truly the vast wasteland.

But here's the final rub, my television home for 12 years, WDAF TV, is one of those Tribune stations about to be swallowed up by Sinclair.  I think of my work colleagues who have stayed on Signal Hill more than 10, 20, or 30 plus years.  Their world is about to implode.  The debacle of the Bass Brothers in 1988 will look like the good old days.  For those on the verge of retirement, this will be the final shove.  For those who have spent the better part of 20 years at FOX 4 and looked forward to making it their home for the entirety of their broadcast career, I share your heartache.  

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