Last week we announced our opposition to the Sinclair/Tribune merger. We’ve received quite a few questions since our announcement and we wanted to address them here:
Why does SFC care about this merger?
Almost all of live TV consumed is sports programming. Many fans rely on local broadcasting for their access to games and news. Since our inception, we have worked to improve the media landscape for fans -- the most prominent of which was our Sports Blackout Rule victory in 2014. This merger is just the latest threat to that landscape.
What are some of the actual harms to fans?
For starters, the whole concept of localism is under siege. Even the FCC has acknowledged that sports are a pillar of localism. This merger impacts fans, however, in a very particular way. Sinclair has a history of acquiring stations and laying off entire sports departments and iconic sportscasters. Beyond just the evening or morning newsrooms, local sports programming on Tribune stations, including legendary WGN-TV sportscasters in Chicago, are at risk.
Sinclair is also brutal during fee negotiations with cable and satellite providers and will blackout signals just before important games in order to gain leverage. This means either the company has to pay up -- and passing the cost to the consumer -- or losing games altogether. That’s exactly what happened when Sinclair took down its signal from DISH Network, CBS took its programming off Time Warner Cable, and News Corp. blacked out the World Series from Cablevision. In every case, major sports events were blacked out to the detriment of fans who had paid their subscription fees, paid their taxes (which funded the stadiums), and just wanted to watch the games.
Third, the sports rights Sinclair will acquire will just grant them more leverage when it comes to these negotiations. They are acquiring rights in some of the most valuable sports markets in the country, including Cubs games in Chicago and Mets and Yankees games in New York. Sinclair likely will do one of two things:
Leverage these rights to demand higher and higher fees from MVPDs.
Migrate these games off of broadcast and onto their pay-TV channels/services.
Either way, fewer fans will have access to games.
What fans are most at risk?
Low-income and elderly fans are the most at risk. Cord-cutting has been a much talked about trend, but it’s a trend that’s being led by lower-income households. Households with less than $40,000 a year are 20% more likely to cut cords than the national average. These fans then rely on free, over-the-air broadcast to watch their live sports. Older fans are also reliant on local broadcasting. In terms of hours watched, they are the largest demo when it comes to traditional television viewers. They have been trending upwards in their consumption as well. Finally, rural fans are also at risk. Many rural fans can’t pick up local broadcast signals well and rely on satellite subscriptions. This reliance makes them especially susceptible to blackouts.
What is localism and why is it important to sports?
Localism is the cornerstone on which American broadcast policy is built. It’s the idea that local news, weather, and sports are paramount to good journalism. It’s what ensures diversity on the airwaves and protects us from monopolies and propaganda conglomerates. It’s important to sports because, in Sinclair Chairman David Smith’s own words, “sports are deeply embedded in American culture.” Local sports reporters have access to coaches and players on all levels that a centralized news team in Sinclair’s corporate headquarters can’t achieve. Localism makes sure that sports of all levels, not just a few high-profile professional teams, receive air time.
It is also especially relevant to sports because geographic proximity is the most important factor when it comes to fans selecting their favorite team.
This afternoon, we held a press conference with the Coalition to Save Local Media where we issued this statement:
“From local high school sports coverage, to local collegiate and NFL team coverage, this merger will do to local sports coverage what Wayne Huizenga did to the World-Series winning Florida Marlins in the 1990’s: remove the team’s best talent, bleed the organization in the name of profit, and leave fans disillusioned and underserved.”
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