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Senators ask FCC chairman to pause Sinclair/Tribune merger

WASHINGTON, DC -- FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testifies before the House Appropriations Committee during a budget hearing Thursday.
WASHINGTON, DC -- FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testifies before the House Appropriations Committee during a budget hearing Thursday. (Alex Edelman / Getty Images)

Twenty two U.S. senators called on the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission to pause the agency's review of Sinclair Broadcast Group's proposed $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media until a review of the U.S. broadcast landscape can be completed.

A letter to Chairman Ajit Pai, signed by 21 Democratic senators and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, asked the FCC to halt making changes to media ownership rules and to hold off on approving pending transfers of broadcast licenses as part of mergers or acquisitions.

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"Failure to do so threatens the heart of localism, diversity and competitive fairness in local broadcasting," the letter said. "We have noted with growing concern your pattern of eliminating the longstanding rules the FCC has maintained to limit local television and radio ownership concentration."

Earlier this week, Sinclair and Tribune announced plans to sell 23 television stations after they merge as part of their campaign to get the deal approved by federal regulators. Sinclair said it expects the merger to close before the end of June, pending approval by the FCC and antitrust clearance by the U.S. Justice Department.

The senators want the FCC to wait for a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is deliberating on the legality of an April 2017 rule change in which the FCC reinstated the so-called UHF discount. The discount allows stations broadcasting on those higher-frequency airwaves to count only half of their audience against a cap allowing a single owner's stations to reach no more than 39 percent of the nation's television households.

Approval of the Sinclair deal would create the nation's largest broadcaster by far. The company has defended the merger as a necessity in a changing media landscape in which broadcasters now face competition not just with one another but with cable television and online news and entertainment sources.

The Sinclair deal has drawn criticism from an unusual coalition, including consumer advocacy groups that generally oppose media consolidation, conservative media companies that are rivals to the right-leaning Sinclair, and cable and satellite TV companies that worry that a beefed-up Sinclair will be able to seek even higher fees from them.

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