The Federal Communications Commission is giving the public until Nov. 2 to submit additional comments on the deal, which could give Hunt Valley-based Sinclair, the nation’s largest broadcaster, control of 233 television stations that reach 72 percent of U.S. households.
“The commission has a strong interest in ensuring a full and complete record upon which to base its decision in this proceeding,” the FCC said in a public notice.
Approval has appeared likely because the FCC recently relaxed rules for broadcast station ownership, but opponents say the deal will hurt media competition and consumers.
To allow for additional input, the FCC is pausing its 180-day transaction “shot clock,” the period in which regulators aim to complete reviews of complex transactions, and restarting it Nov. 2. That would delay the completion until mid-February.
“We think the announcement speaks for itself, that the FCC is seeking to compile a complete record and is offering commenters two extra weeks to review and comment” on Sinclair’s most recent filing with the FCC, a Sinclair spokesperson said Thursday in an email.
The FCC asked Sinclair in September to show how it plans to comply with ownership limits after it buys Tribune Media, which was formed in 2014 when Tribune Co., then the parent of The Baltimore Sun, split its broadcasting and publishing divisions into separate, independent companies. The broadcast division became Tribune Media, while the publishing division, including The Sun, became Tribune Publishing, renamed tronc Inc. last year.
In its response to the FCC earlier this month, Sinclair declined to offer a list of TV stations it plans to sell or is marketing for sale but said it would need to sell licenses in at least two markets under current national TV station ownership limits. It said it hired TV station broker Moelis & Co. in July to help it identify potential buyers.
The company has received bids for as many as 10 television stations that could fetch up to $1 billion, according to reports Tuesday attributed to people familiar with the matter. Sinclair has declined to comment on those reports.
The U.S. Department of Justice also is reviewing the proposed deal and is expected to complete that by the end of the year. Because the Justice Department could require specific divestitures of TV stations, the company had said it’s premature to finalize divestiture plans before then.
Sinclair has said the scale and efficiencies that will come from the merger will ensure the future of free over-the-air-televison. But the deal has generated opposition from competitors such as Dish Network LLC and the American Cable Association and advocacy groups such as Free Press, Public Knowledge and Common Cause.
“While we are encouraged with the FCC’s decision to finally stop the clock on the merger, it’s unclear why they waited 104 days to ask questions that consumer advocates, conservative groups, and industry competitors have been asking since day one,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of the watchdog group Allied Progress, in a statement. “It’s clear that this merger is not in the public’s interest and the deal fails to meet the FCC’s own rules on a host of issues.”