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Petition to FCC opposes Baltimore TV station license renewals, citing ownership ties to Sinclair Broadcast

A Columbia man has filed a petition with federal regulators alleging Sinclair Broadcast Group has violated TV station ownership rules and asking the government to deny licenses for three Baltimore TV stations.

The request before the Federal Communications Commission comes from a viewer from Columbia who complains of what he calls Sinclair’s “checkered history” with the agency and blames Sinclair for a lack of diversity of viewpoints in the Baltimore TV market.

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Ihor Gawdiak, who filed a petition that became public Wednesday, argues he has standing as a regular viewer of the three TV stations seeking license renewal.

Those include WBFF Fox45, licensed by Chesapeake Television Licensee, a Sinclair entity; WNUV CW, licensed by Cunningham Broadcasting Corp.; and WUTB MyTV, licensed by Deerfield Media.

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The petition argues that Sinclair controls all three licensees, which it says hurts viewers such as Gawdiak by diminishing the number of voices, the diversity of points of view and the quality of available television programming in the Baltimore market.

“Sinclair controls three television stations in Baltimore, while the FCC rules do not permit it to control more than one,” the petition says.

The company did not respond to requests for comment on Gawdiak’s petition.

An attorney for Gawdiak said his client filed on behalf of himself and is not affiliated with any group. Gawdiak declined through his attorney to comment.

“He’s just an individual that wanted to raise these issues,” said Arthur V. Belendiuk. “He’s just a viewer. Viewers have a right to file a petition to deny, and he wanted to exercise his right to file a petition to deny.”

Sinclair has been criticized in the past for sidestepping FCC rules, most recently when it launched an unsuccessful bid in 2017 to acquire Tribune Media for $3.9 billion.

That deal was put together at a time when the FCC had been easing some TV station ownership limits under FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, an appointee of President Donald Trump.

The FCC had voted in 2017 to reinstate the so-called UHF discount. It 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% of the nation’s television households.

The Sinclair/Tribune deal was opposed by groups such as Dish Network LLC, the American Cable Association, Free Press, Public Knowledge and Common Cause. Opponents argued that the deal would fail to serve the public interest and violate the broadcast ownership caps, even with the UHF discount in place. Critics also echoed long-running criticism that Sinclair uses its news broadcasts to advocate conservative views.

Sinclair had argued the deal would create scale and efficiencies that would ensure the future of free, over-the-air television at a time when broadcasters faced increasing competitive pressures from online streaming services, cable programming networks and services such as Dish Network.

The acquisition was derailed after Pai raised concerns about the proposed sales of some stations in Chicago, Dallas and Houston, designed to keep Sinclair under ownership caps but appeared to allow Sinclair to continue to control them. Two of those sales would have been to Cunningham.

The merger collapsed Aug. 9, 2018, after Tribune withdrew then sued Sinclair for breach of contract. (Tribune Media was formerly part of Tribune Co., which once owned The Baltimore Sun and other newspapers, but spun them off in 2014.)

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Chesapeake, Cunningham and Deerfield each asked the FCC in June to renew the licenses on the three Baltimore stations, and those requests are pending.

Gawdiak’s petition to deny refers to documents, such as agreements between Sinclair and the two licensees, that give Sinclair control of the stations’ operations and administration.

The petition says the principals of Cunningham and Deerfield have ties to Sinclair and, with no stake or risk in the business, are essentially Sinclair employees.

It says Sinclair owns almost all the stations’ assets, guarantees or assumes their indebtedness, approves transactions, expenses and policy decisions and owns options to buy the companies, stations and licenses at below-market value. Sinclair controls personnel and programming, the petition says.

“Sinclair’s elaborate structuring of entities it controls to hold FCC licenses is not limited to Baltimore,” the petition says. “Its sole purpose is to enable Sinclair to ’own’ more stations in a market than FCC rules permit.”

The broadcaster and others have long relied on various types of arrangements among stations with different ownership, such as “joint sales agreements” or “shared service agreements.” FCC rules permit such agreements, in which stations might pool resources or sell advertising time for another station in the same market.

But Sinclair and other large broadcasters have used such arrangements “to control more stations than they’re actually allowed to under FCC’s local ownership rules,” said Matt Wood, vice president of policy for Free Press. “We think it is an abuse of FCC rules.”

The FCC, under the current and past administrations, has loosened ownership rules and tended to routinely approve license renewals, Wood said. That means the license challenge is unlikely to succeed, he said.

“The deck is stacked, and you rarely see these kinds of challenges filed,” he said. “We certainly think the issues they are raising are issues the FCC ought to be taking seriously.”

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