A Rival to Fox?

It’s time we have another conservative network on national TV. There is Fox, Fox Business and One America News. However, Fox has not been all that conservative of late.

They lost me during the last election, except for Fox & Friends and Hannity. They were so obviously against Trump, as the debates and Megyn Kelly showcased. Don’t tune in to Shepherd Smith if you’re a conservative either. He’s a Never Trumper, too, and full of snark and condescension.

Just the other day news came out that Rupert Murdoch, head of Fox, told his underling Roger Ailes to do what he could to get anyone elected except Trump. Early on they backed Jeb Bush, then Rubio. Murdoch said he’d prefer Hillary to Trump.

It was obvious.

One America News is growing, but it’s not there yet.

The following article from Bloomberg indicates that Sinclair Broadcasting may be gearing up to challenge Fox.

In the menagerie of television talking heads who have come to prominence advocating for Donald Trump, Boris Epshteyn is hardly the most memorable. He lacks Sean Spicer’s flair for the absurd, Kellyanne Conway’s gift at turning a phrase (“alternative facts”), Corey Lewandowski’s smoldering menace, Jeffrey Lord’s Zen inertia, or Sebastian Gorka’s staunch facial hair. Nobody has parodied Epshteyn on Saturday Night Live. Yet he’s perhaps the best surrogate to study if you want to understand where the Trump/TV industrial complex goes next.

Epshteyn, 34, was born in Russia and raised in New Jersey. On TV he exudes the ineffable air of a Trump insider, bolstered by family connection (he went to college with the president’s son Eric) and untroubled by an unorthodox résumé, involving law school and business ties to Russia. He talks with a thickly accented swagger that’s perfect for the current mode of televised political debate, which is one part pro wrestling match, one part spy novel. If you encountered Epshteyn at the Trump National Golf Club bar in Bedminster, N.J., you might expect him to hard-sell you on a real estate investment in the Urals or, failing that, a delicatessen in Newark.

Epshteyn briefly worked in the White House—the job ended not long after Politico reported that he’d gotten into a “yelling match” with a booker at Fox News—but since April he’s been employed as the chief political analyst for the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Located in Hunt Valley, Md., little-known Sinclair is the nation’s largest owner of broadcast TV stations. It has 173 of them, mostly in small markets (Sioux City, Iowa; Fresno, Calif.; Little Rock), but with several in larger metropolitan areas as well (Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Washington). Whatever a particular station’s network affiliation—ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, or NBC—Sinclair viewers get a steady dose of conservative political commentary. Lately, Executive Chairman David Smith has begun assembling a kind of junior varsity squad of commentators and making unspecific murmurings about competing head-to-head with the senior lettermen and women at Fox News. To left-leaning viewers only just becoming aware of the company’s reach, Sinclair is positioned to flip a switch and turn those 173 stations’ newscasts—currently delivering bulletins on weather, school closings, and local affairs—into a cohesive network that pushes a Fox News-esque worldview of outrage and conflict into individual cities, counties, and towns.

Epshteyn shows how the arrangement might work. Three times a week he records brief video commentaries that are sent to Sinclair’s 65 or so newsrooms around the country. Station managers are required to weave them into their otherwise locally produced news shows—part of a larger daily slate of clips known internally as “must-runs.” In recent segments, Epshteyn has praised the Trump administration’s trade policies, encouraged states to cooperate with his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, critiqued Democrats’ lack of a “coherent and authentic” message, and knocked other news outlets for their insufficiently admiring coverage of Trump.

The segments look like something you might see on Fox News—but only if you stripped away Fox’s high-end graphics, state-of-the-art studios, tailored wardrobes, perfect dental hygiene, and polished scripts. Epshteyn’s low-budget shtick, often delivered in front of a graphic image of the White House overladen with the stars and stripes, hasn’t wowed critics. One, David Zurawik, wrote in the Baltimore Sun that Epshteyn’s “commentary has come as close to classic propaganda as anything I have seen in broadcast television in the last 30 years.” But since Trump’s surprise victory last fall, liberal and progressive viewers have learned that in the current political-media climate, seemingly slipshod productions can suddenly hit it big.

Sinclair is likely to get larger yet. In May the company announced it was buying Tribune Media Co. for $3.9 billion. Among other assets, Sinclair would add 42 TV stations—including major ones in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—if the deal is approved by regulators. The expansion wouldn’t have been possible if Trump’s pick to lead the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, hadn’t voted a few weeks earlier to ease a major restriction on local media ownership.

While future-of-media gurus have long predicted the death of broadcast TV, roughly 20 million U.S. households don’t subscribe to a cable, satellite, or streaming TV package and still rely on local stations for news and entertainment. Many more viewers, whether they know it or not, also consume Sinclair programming via their cable or satellite providers, which pay Sinclair to retransmit their content. The more the company grows, the more leverage it holds over networks, syndicators, advertisers—and politicians, who continue to lean heavily on local TV to get their message out. Last year, Sinclair generated $256 million of net income on $2.7 billion of revenue. (It also has $4 billion in debt.) But the recent growth has sharpened a conflict at the heart of the company, pitting Smith’s desire to build a national media powerhouse on par with the likes of Comcast Corp. and Walt Disney Co. against his tendency to penny-pinch and cut corners.

Critics of the Tribune deal, including Free Press, a Washington advocacy group, have accused Sinclair of trading sycophancy for favorable regulation. “It’s a scandal,” Craig Aaron, president and chief executive officer of Free Press, said in a May statement. “Sure looks like a quid pro quo: friendly coverage and full employment for ex-Trump mouthpieces in exchange for a green light to get as big as Sinclair wants.”

Sinclair’s CEO, Christopher Ripley, says the company has received no regulatory favoritism. Smith, who hardly ever gives interviews, declined to comment, but 19 current and former Sinclair employees spoke to Bloomberg Businessweek, many requesting anonymity out of concern about retribution. “Sinclair has managed to maintain a relatively low profile compared to other big network owners and consolidators in the media industry,” says former FCC Chairman Michael Copps. “David Smith is the most powerful person in American media you’ve never heard of.”

Smith, 66, grew up in the Baltimore area, the second-oldest of four brothers. Early in his career, during the 1970s, he founded Comark Communications, a manufacturer of TV transmitters, and was an active partner, according to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, in Cine Processors, a bulk reproducer of pornographic films. In 1971 his father, Julian Sinclair Smith, an electrical engineer, launched WBFF, a small Baltimore station with no network affiliation, eventually adding two more independent broadcasters. In the early 1980s, with Julian in declining health, David joined the family business. He became its president and CEO in 1988. By the end of the ’90s, Smith had enlarged Sinclair’s portfolio to 59 stations. In 1995 he took the company public, wooing investors with an unadulterated management philosophy. “My father was too much of a visionary to care about profits,” Smith told Forbes. “What I wanted was purely to make money.”

As Sinclair expanded, it earned a reputation for austerity. According to one former employee at WBFF, Sinclair’s flagship station in Baltimore, for years workers needed to insert two distinct keys simultaneously—in a manner reminiscent of nuclear launch protocols—to gain access to the supply closet. “Frugality runs through this company’s DNA,” says Ripley, who succeeded Smith as CEO in January. He hastens to add that “we’ve invested heavily in the stations that we’ve bought.”

Over time, Sinclair kept running into an FCC rule that prohibits any single company from owning more than one station in a given market. Smith helped pioneer a workaround. In the early ’90s, Carolyn Smith, the family matriarch, became the majority owner of a company called Glencairn Ltd. When Smith needed to acquire or divest a station with geographic overlap, Glencairn would buy it, then sign a “local marketing agreement,” effectively turning control of the station back to Sinclair. Rivals complained that the arrangement was anti-competitive. In 2001 the FCC ruled that Sinclair had exercised illegal control over Glencairn and fined each company $40,000. But Sinclair continued to set up so-called sidecar stations, through which it owns or controls two or sometimes three outlets in one market. (Last year, Sinclair paid the FCC $9.4 million to settle claims, without admitting liability, that it improperly negotiated with distributors on behalf of same-market stations.)

“If we’re successful in creating meaningful, relevant controversy, we’ll be doing a community service”

For years, Sinclair shied from creating original programming. That changed in 2002, when it launched a news operation in Hunt Valley. Executives said “News Central” would create national reports that would be sent to its stations, saving money on duplicative newsgathering efforts. Sinclair executives also saw an opportunity to make local news more provocative. “Fox News Channel has demonstrated that people want a different level of truth,” Smith told Adweek. “And if you can do it nationally, why not locally? If we’re successful in creating meaningful, relevant controversy, we’ll be doing a community service.”

Controversies blossomed. In 2004 the Washington Post reported that 62 Sinclair stations planned to air—in prime time, just before the presidential election—a partisan documentary attacking Democratic nominee John Kerry. Protesters boycotted Sinclair’s advertisers and the company’s shares plummeted, forcing it to air a truncated version.

Eventually, Sinclair shut down News Central. But the company continued to create must-runs and centralized political analysis. Among its regular stable of contributors was the commentator Armstrong Williams, who during George W. Bush’s second term provided a series of sunny dispatches on the administration. Problem: Williams was getting paid by the government to promote its education policies, a fact that Sinclair failed to properly disclose to its viewers. The FCC fined it $36,000.

At the start of the 2016 presidential campaign, Sinclair churned out negative must-runs about Clinton and flattering pieces about Republican candidate Ben Carson. Like the Smiths, Carson has deep ties to Baltimore, and his campaign adviser was Armstrong Williams, Sinclair’s longtime commentator. Williams says Smith’s support for any particular candidate doesn’t depend on personal friendship or even party affiliation—he’s willing to work with any politician who understands the value of local TV and the burden of overregulation. “He deals with people who have an impact on his business. It wears no labels,” says Williams. “What he cares about are people who are friendly to the marketplace.”

After Carson dropped out, Sinclair aligned with Trump. In December, according to a report in Politico, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, revealed to a private gathering of bankers that the campaign had brokered a deal to give Sinclair’s reporters additional access to Trump on the condition that interviews would run without interceding commentary. Sinclair executives responded at the time that a similar offer was made to Clinton, who declined the overture.

After Trump won, the FCC voted in April to restore an arcane rule that paved the way for Sinclair to buy Tribune. (The deal is still under government review.) Sinclair’s expansion looks breezy compared with another media merger: AT&T Inc.’s pending bid for Time Warner Inc., the parent company of CNN. In July, according to the New York Times, White House officials were privately discussing how they could use the deal to tame CNN’s critical coverage of the president.

Sinclair has outlets in Arkansas and recently made a bid for Channel 3.

The sooner they take charge, the better.

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