Sinclair Broadcast Group CEO Chris Ripley said the company’s long-gestating acquisition of Tribune Media faces one last major hurdle: a lawsuit against the FCC filed in March by a consortium of consumer groups and unions.
He remains confident the $4.6 billion deal will go through. Yet he also made a rare acknowledgement of the possibility it could fall apart due to the suit, which charges the FCC with favoring Sinclair as it has stripped away regulation limiting media ownership.
“We firmly believe the likely outcome here is that the FCC wins,” Ripley said during a conference call to discuss Sinclair’s first-quarter results. “If, by some scenario, they don’t and we have not been approved by then, we can either wait and see if there’s an appeal or some sort of FCC action” on station ownership rules. “The other scenario is that the deal would just expire and I would just remind everyone that Sinclair does not have a break-up fee in that scenario.”
Sinclair’s quarterly results were decidedly mixed. Earnings per share plunged to 42 cents, well below Wall Street estimates and down from 61 cents in the prior-year quarter. Total revenue increased 6% to $665.4 million versus $626.9 million a year ago. Softness in advertising took the blame, a problem that was pronounced because the major events of the quarter, the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, were on NBC. Sinclair’s station portfolio has few NBC affiliates compared with those carrying other broadcast networks’ programming.
Along with the earnings news, the company said this morning it had finalized the sale of $1.5 billion in station assets, including seven major-market stations it sold to 21st Century Fox for $910 million. After the divestitures, the company said it would have stations (including Tribune’s) reaching 62% of the country, but 37.4% according to FCC ownership formulas.
Investors seem buoyed by the Fox sale and the sense of Sinclair getting to the promised land with Tribune. They have sent Sinclair’s stock up almost 9% in early trading, to about $29.67 a share.
On the call, Ripley also addressed the controversy last month over the company requiring local anchors to read a promotion on air that warned of “false news” spread by some American media outlets. Critics said the segment — memorialized in a widely shared supercut by Deadspin — too closely echoed President Donald Trump’s media attacks.
“This controversy is having no impact on the quality of the journalism being done,” Ripley said. “We watched ratings very closely through that recent controversy and there was no impact on ratings. At times, they would go up. On the advertising side, we would get some calls of support from people realizing this was very overblown and then there were some cancellations but an immaterial amount.”