Managing Editor | Liz Frank
This is the first part of a three part series. The Black Wall St. Times follows Sinclair Broadcast Group’s rise to one of the largest local channel owners in the country. As the FCC deregulates the television industry, Sinclair pushes their conservative politics across the country. KTUL, Tulsa’s ABC affiliate, was purchased by Sinclair in 2014. This month Trump’s FCC has all but approved Sinclair’s buyout of Tribune Media Company, which will extend Sinclair’s reach to 70 percent of American households.
Many Americans obtain most of their news from their local evening news broadcasts. According to Pew, 46 percent of adults get their news from their local television stations. In Tulsa there are four local stations where viewers can see regular news telecasts: KJRH – NBC affiliated; KOKI – Fox 23 KOTV – CBS affiliated, and KTUL – ABC affiliated. Because of long-established FCC regulations, the national broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) can only own and operate so many channels, which means most local affiliates are owned by ever-expanding media corporations.
The FCC regulation on broadcast networks’ channel ownership was meant to encourage local programming production and promote a variety of thought on the airwaves, but has had the opposite effect as minimally-regulated media corporations find loopholes to expand their reach and push their political framing of events into American homes.
John Oliver’s investigative team at HBO’s Last Week Tonight skillfully shows what Sinclair’s growth means to American news-consumers, and Oliver helps the bad news go down with a spoon full of humor.
The company that is now Sinclair Broadcast Group was founded by Julian Sinclair Smith as Chesapeake Television Corporation in 1971 in Baltimore. The company incorporated as Sinclair Broadcast Group in 1986 and started increasing its purchase of television stations.
In 1991, Sinclair purchased a second local station in Pittsburgh, which would have violated the FCC’s restrictions on duopolies. The regulation prevented station owners from controlling more than one broadcast network in a market. To remain compliant with the regulations, Sinclair sold WPTT to the station manager, Eddie Edwards, even financing most of the deal themselves.
The company that Edwards formed with Sinclair’s funding and direction was called Glencairn. Despite “selling” ownership of the station to Glencairn and Edwards, Sinclair would pay to retain control the station and its programming. They called this massive loophole a Local Marketing Agreement (LMA.)
From 1991 to 1999 Sinclair used Glencairn to create duopolies all over the country. They also exploited Edwards’ race to sell Glencairn as a minority-owned company, which caused many diversity advocates, including Jesse Jackson, to cry foul.
David Smith, the president of Sinclair, seemed to view the crony capitalistic move as charity of sorts, saying “What an opportunity that was to give something back to the African American community!“
Jay Schwartzman, then-president of Media Access Project, said in 1999, “The function of enhancing minority ownership is to increase diversity of views and perspectives.” He went on to explain, “Eddie Edwards sells or leases essentially 100 percent of programming time and control to Sinclair. There’s no diversity; [Sinclair’s chairman, president, and CEO] is now essentially programming two stations in an area. Eddie programs zero.”
Edwards responded to criticisms, or “mudslinging,” as he called it, by saying “I’m a very successful black man. You would think they [diversity advocates] would be behind us.”
Glencairn attempted to purchase Sullivan Broadcast Holdings in 1998, which included KOKH in Oklahoma City. This sale would have given Sinclair (through an LMA) a duopoly in the Oklahoma City market since they already owned KOCB. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition filed a complaint with the FCC over Sinclair’s use of Glencairn to work-around the duopoly ban.
In August of 1999, Bill Clinton’s FCC ended the 30-year duopoly ban, which meant that LMAs were no longer needed for Sinclair to control multiple stations in a single market. The sale of Sullivan to Sinclair was finalized in 1999, giving Sinclair the first legal duopoly in the country in Oklahoma City.
In 2001, after a three-year investigation into Sinclair’s use of LMAs, prompted by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition’s complaint, the FCC fined Sinclair $40,000 for their agreements with Glencairn and companies like it. But the Republican-populated commission, found that “there was no intent to mislead” and that a majority of the complaint was now moot because duopolies had, since the filing of the complaint, become legal.
After this rule change (and others lobbied for by Sinclair) the company had virtually unlimited growth potential (until it reached another FCC cut-off point, which we will cover in part three.)
Sinclair bought its first Tulsa station in 2013, KTUL, from Allbritton Communications Company.
In part 2 of the series, The Sinclair Effect, we will show how Sinclair Broadcast Group uses their enormous platform to steer public discourse and disseminate political opinion around the country under the guise of “local” news.