FCC Undecided on Timing of Sinclair Deal Review, Pai Says

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By Jonathan Reid

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency has not yet determined when it will resume reviewing Sinclair Broadcast Group’s $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media.

The FCC paused its informal 180-day shot clock on the merger review in January, citing the need to assess Sinclair’s offers to divest some stations and make other moves to comply with ownership limits.

“We don’t have any determination as to what the time frame might be,” Pai said while testifying May 17 before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

Pai, defying some congressional Democrats, also said he would not commit to having the FCC hold off on resuming the merger review until a federal appeals court rules on a crucial ownership limit change that allowed Sinclair to strike the deal.

The FCC’s review could help determine the fate of Sinclair’s pursuit of Tribune Media to become the largest TV station owner in the country. Pai’s comments underscore the complexity of Sinclair’s divestiture offers and regulators’ concern over the company’s post-merger influence.

Consumer advocates, media watchdogs, and some Democrats want the FCC to wait until litigation on the agency’s reinstatement of the so-called UHF discount is resolved. The FCC in 2017 restored the UHF discount, allowing media companies to count just 50 percent of households reached for its stations that broadcast in a UHF spectrum.

Under FCC rules, a company can only own stations that reach up to 39 percent of households in the U.S. Sinclair’s deal to buy Tribune would not have been allowed without the UHF discount, since their combined TV stations then would easily exceed the 39 percent limit.

The FCC’s restoration is being challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

“With respect to the merger and how it might interplay with that proceeding, I can’t forecast. We don’t have any determination as to what that time frame might be in restarting it and how it might interplay with this pending proceeding,” Pai said in response to questioning by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.)

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a bill May 15 that would require the FCC to review acquisitions and mergers in 180 days.

—With assistance from Todd Shields

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Reid at jreid@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Roger Yu at ryu@bloomberglaw.com

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