Sinclair Broadcast plans to keep headquarters in Hunt Valley, double in size

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. said Wednesday that the company’s national headquarters will remain in Hunt Valley and expand as it moves to complete its $3.9 billion planned takeover of Tribune Media Co.

Sinclair said it plans to invest $12 million to accommodate an expansion that could double the number of employees to 700 by 2024.

The jobs, however, are contingent on its acquisition of Tribune Media, a deal that would make Sinclair the nation’s largest broadcaster if approved by federal regulators.

The Federal Communications Commission is holding a hearing Thursday on TV station ownership rules that could affect the proposed acquisition.

Tribune Media was formed in 2014 when Tribune Co., then the parent of The Baltimore Sun, split its broadcasting and publishing divisions into separate companies. The broadcast division became Tribune Media, while the publishing division, including The Sun, became Tribune Publishing, renamed tronc Inc. last year.

Sinclair’s planned expansion continues a trend for the company, which already has tripled in size in the last six years through acquisitions. The company was founded in 1986 and grew from one station, WBFF Fox 45 in Baltimore, to own 193 television stations in 89 U.S. markets. Combining with Tribune could bring its number of stations to 233 unless regulators require it to sell some stations.

“Our momentum continues as we roll out our plans to double that growth and our size over the coming five years,” said Chris Ripley, Sinclair’s president and CEO, in a statement.

The company did not respond to a request for comment but said in a statement the location in Hunt Valley, where it will occupy three buildings, afforded convenience and proximity for employees and prospective workers.

State and local officials embraced Sinclair’s expansion as an economic boon.

The expansion in Hunt Valley was announced by Gov. Larry Hogan and the state’s Department of Commerce, which approved a $1.3 million loan through the Maryland Economic Development Assistance Authority and Fund to assist with project costs.

Baltimore County is providing a $130,000 loan. The company is also eligible for tax credits through the state’s Job Creation Tax Credit.

“We are excited to support Sinclair Broadcast Group’s decision to expand their operations in Baltimore County and add 367 new jobs,” Hogan said in a statement. “Companies, like Sinclair, that choose to grow their business in our great state, further demonstrate our administration’s commitment to ensuring Maryland remains open for business. This is tremendous news for Baltimore County and our state.”

Maryland Commerce Secretary Mike Gill called Sinclair a “home-grown Maryland company” whose growth would help the agency strengthen the state’s economy.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Hogan for governor next year, welcomed the company’s decision in a statement, noting its contribution to creating a strong business environment in the county. He did not respond to a request for an interview.

The county referred questions about the details of the expansion to the company.

State economic development officials said they considered Sinclair’s expansion plans as “competitive” when considering incentives, but they declined to explain why. They also could not provide details about the buildings Sinclair planned to occupy.

The Tribune takeover that could help Sinclair add 367 workers appears likely, as the FCC recently relaxed ownership rules — a move criticized by cable companies, consumer advocates and several attorneys general, including Maryland’s Brian E. Frosh, because they say it would decrease consumer choice and diversity.

On Wednesday, a group of Democratic senators sent a letter to the FCC’s inspector general asking for an investigation into the commission’s objectivity in reviewing the takeover. The lawmakers say a timeline of meetings and statements shows there may have been a “quid pro quo” involving Sinclair, the Trump administration, and Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman, because Pai met several times with Sinclair officials before relaxing established ownership rules in a way that benefited Sinclair.

Neither Sinclair nor the FCC responded to requests for comment about the senators’ letter.

The lawmakers also noted that Jared Kushner, President Donald J. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, said months ago the campaign had struck a deal for more favorable coverage during the election on stations owned by Sinclair, often labeled a conservative-leaning operation. Sinclair said at the time that there was nothing unusual or nefarious about the arrangement.

“We have strong concerns that the FCC’s ongoing review of the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media may be tainted by a series of actions and events that raise questions about the independence and impartiality of the FCC,” the senators wrote to David Hunt, FCC Inspector General.

The FCC’s public comment period for the acquisition just ended and it plans to consider additional ownership rules during its monthly meeting Thursday, such as whether to allow owning a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market. The FCC did not respond to a request for comment about the meeting or letter.

The Department of Justice’s antitrust division also is expected to complete a review of Sinclair’s proposed takeover of Tribune by the end of the year.

A local citizen activist group, Ellicott City Huddle, an outgrowth of the Women’s March, plans to protest at Thursday’s FCC meeting. The group fears changing long-established ownership rules will chip away at freedom of the press and eliminate local voices by centralizing the information that reaches so many households.

Previous rules had limited the reach of a single broadcast company to 39 percent of U.S. households, but earlier this year the FCC agreed to change the way the total is calculated so Sinclair wouldn’t violate the cap even though it could reach more than 70 percent of homes.

The group also opposes elimination of a rule that broadcasters maintain a studio in the communities they serve.

“This is just too much power, consolidation of power,” said Veronica Clarke, a group member, of the Sinclair-Tribune merger. “It would be a defeat for competition and diversity and localism, all values that the FCC is supposed to protect. What we see is the FCC is not protecting the public interest but protecting the broadcast industry’s interest and profits.”

Sinclair has defended the merger as necessary to ensure the competitiveness of local broadcast stations and local news in the face of rising online competition.

As part of the company’s recent earnings announcement, David Smith, Sinclair’s executive chairman, praised the FCC’s recent actions.

“Broadcasters actually do compete against everyone for viewers and advertising dollars,” Smith said in a statement. “Their review also recognizes that the current rules no longer reflect the realities of today’s media landscape and consumer viewing habits. We applaud the FCC’s action to level the playing field, especially in light of emerging technologies and consolidation in the telecom and cable industries.”

The company also has acknowledged it will need to sell some stations to comply with the FCC’s revised ownership rules, even hiring a broker to help it identify potential buyers.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mercohn

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