Fox45, the local Sinclair Broadcast Group affiliate. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Maryland’s attorney general sees the public bad that comes with a merger between Hunt Valley-based TV news giant Sinclair Broadcast Group and its smaller counterpart, Tribune Broadcasting.

Under a proposed merger between the two firms, Sinclair would expand the number of TV news stations it owns from 173 to more than 200 (and more than 230, if you count other pending acquisitions). While this is obviously very exciting for a TV news conglomerate that’s willing to pay nearly $4 billion to swallow a smaller fish, it’s raised some concerns from people who value an open, diverse media industry.

Count Attorney General Brian Frosh in the latter party. On Friday, he filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission opposing the merger, arguing it’s “a bad deal for Marylanders.” He joined other attorneys general from Illinois, Massachusetts and Rhode Island in filing comments against the deal.

For one, Frosh argued, an even larger Sinclair further limits choices for consumers, leaving them subject to potentially poor technical service and inattentive customer service if problems do arise. Were the merger to go through, Sinclair’s reach would be as large as 72 percent of U.S. households.

Sinclair has maintained its audience capacity would be much lower under what Frosh says is an outdated system for measuring audience reach. Under the ultra high frequency (UHF) discount rule, which is currently being considered by the D.C. Circuit federal appeals court, the company says its reach would actually be 45 percent of households.

However, Frosh contends that the UHF method is “obsolete” because it relies upon comparatively weaker UHF signals used in the 1980s – and even if that system was permitted as a measure for the merger, it would still violate a national audience reach cap of 39 percent.

Sinclair has defended its plan as a way to continue offering free TV to consumers while expanding its local coverage and improving its facilities and programming.

The company caught fire in the last year for its slanted political news coverage, including “must-run” segments featuring commentary from conservative analysts, woven into nightly newscasts. One example: commentary sessions with Boris Epshteyn, a former special assistant to Donald Trump. Watch him argue for scaling back press briefings between the White House and reporters here, or back Trump’s unsubstantiated voter-fraud allegations here.

Frosh and his fellow attorneys general recommend that at a minimum, the FCC wait until the D.C. Circuit Court is finished reviewing the UHF discount rule. Ideally, though, they’d like to see the proposed deal struck down.

“We urge the Commission to consider the effect this transaction would have on our
states’ residents and the choices they will have for choosing among television competitors,” he wrote.

Editor’s note: The author is a former employee of Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...