Sinclair Broadcast Group praises FCC media ownership, TV rule changes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sinclair Broadcast Group SBGI.O on Wednesday praised proposals from the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission that could make it easier to expand its reach and could allow it to eventually make additional investments.

The Maryland-based company is seeking approval for its proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media Co TRCO.N and hopes to avoid some divestitures to get the deal approved.

The deal has been criticized by Democrats and some conservative media outlets.

Sinclair, which already owns or operates 192 U.S. television stations, announced plans in May to acquire Tribune’s 42 TV stations in 33 markets as well as cable network WGN America, extending its reach to 72 percent of American households.

An advocacy group Free Press, said Sinclair forces its stations to “air pro-Trump propaganda and then seeks favors from the Trump administration.” Sinclair in April hired a former Trump campaign adviser, Boris Epshteyn, as a commentator.

Last week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the regulator would vote Nov. 16 to eliminate the 42-year-old ban on cross-ownership of a newspaper and TV station in a major market and making it easier for media companies to buy additional TV stations in the same market, or for local stations to jointly sell advertising time.

Sinclair chief executive Christopher Ripley said the proposal is a “landmark development for our industry as a whole, and we applaud the FCC for recognizing the competitive inequities levied upon TV broadcasters for several decades.”

Ripley said the FCC rule changes are helpful but the real impact of the rules change may be what transactions it could consider “subsequent to Tribune.”

He said the company anticipates the transaction will close in early 2018 after completing regulatory reviews.

In April, the FCC reversed a 2016 decision limiting the number of television stations some broadcasters can buy, paving the way for the Sinclair-Tribune tie-up.

The FCC also said it will vote in November on whether to allow broadcasters to voluntarily use a new technology to improve picture quality and allow better reception on mobile phones. Sinclair hold patents on the technology.

Critics said the FCC has taken a number of steps to boost Sinclair.

“It has reached a point where all our media policy decisions seem to be custom built for this one company,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said of the Sinclair deal at a congressional hearing last week.

On Wednesday, more than 45 members of Congress asked Ripley to answer questions about the merger. “We need to be sure about what this merger is going to mean for the American people and for local news,” said Representative Tony Cardenas.

Separately, Sinclair’s Ripley said the company had been approached by former Fox News host Bill O‘Reilly, who was fired over allegations of sexual harassment, about potentially joining Sinclair “but we do not have any interest in hiring him.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Grant McCool