Sinclair preps to challenge Fox News

- Mei 03, 2018

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which for months has denied any interest in challenging Fox News while awaiting approval of a merger with Tribune Co., is gearing up to do just that.

Sinclair executive chairman David Smith has been holding meetings with potential future employees, including former Fox News staff members, and laying out a vision for an evening block of opinion and news programming that would compete with Fox’s top-rated lineup, according to a person familiar with the meetings.

Sinclair currently owns the Tennis Channel, and, as part of the $3.9 billion Tribune deal pending before the Federal Communications Commission, would acquire WGN America, a cable network that currently reaches 80 million homes.

Smith, who has been personally involved in at least some of the meetings, still appears to be working through several aspects of the plan, including which of those networks would house his news and opinion programming. He has been discussing a block of at least three hours, but also potentially up to six. Smith is settled, though, on basing his new operation in Washington, DC, just down the road from Sinclair headquarters in Baltimore, said the person familiar with the discussions. The company already owns local Washington station WJLA, where it produces some of its national content.


The meetings conflict with past statements by Sinclair, denying interest in a national news platform. CEO Chris Ripley told Variety last summer, “After we acquired Allbritton [Communications] in 2014, we looked hard at launching a national cable news channel, but we decided the world didn’t need another cable news platform...Our strength is local news. The market for national cable news is very well served.”

Sinclair did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Smith’s meetings with cable-news figures have sparked chatter in media circles, including speculation about which current or former Fox News personalities might join a new Sinclair network.

“They are taking meetings and they’re laying out what their plans are,” said one television news agent, saying that word of Sinclair’s meetings is starting to make its way around the industry.

One apparent Sinclair target is former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, who left the network in September 2016, and then had a short stint at MSNBC before signing on with Voice of America. Van Susteren said in an email that she has spoken with Smith.

“I am intellectually challenged by my weekly VOA show which broadcasts all over the world and is translated into many languages, including Farsi (airs in Iran), Mandarin etc.,” Van Susteren wrote in an email. “I do know [executive chairman] David Smith and have over time spoken to him. If the Sinclair deal happens, I might talk to him further...but it would have to be something that would not take me from VOA.”

Sinclair, which owns local news stations across the country, has stirred controversy by forcing its stations to air conservative “must-run” commentary, and the company sparked outrage at the end of March by requiring local news anchors to read a promotional script that echoed lines from President Donald Trump bashing the media.

Any news and opinion block would likely feature a similar tone and perspective. While Smith’s plans are not yet firm, there is also potential for some news reporting mixed into the block, which could provide a counterbalance to conservative commentary, much the same way Fox News points to its daytime news-programming to argue that that it is “fair and balanced,” said the agent.

“If you want to stunt or counter the narrative that you’re going to outflank Fox on the right, you start trying to convince people you have some good talent on the reportorial side,” the agent said.

Other potential hires are former Fox anchor Eric Bolling and reporter James Rosen, who both declined to address whether they’ve met with Smith or other Sinclair executives.

The New York Post reported Wednesday night that Bolling, who has just signed on to do a show with digital streaming network Conservative Review TV, has also been in talks with MSNBC, Newsmax and Sinclair. A person familiar with Bolling’s situation said that the CRTV job would not preclude a return to television.

“I’ve had meetings with several different media groups, let’s just leave it at that,” said Bolling, who left Fox News in September amid a sexual harassment probe.

Rosen would also come with baggage. Shortly after he left in December, NPR reported that Rosen was facing harassment accusations. But Sinclair has shown a willingness to stomach those sort of complications. Last fall, reports emerged that the network had talked with former Fox host Bill O’Reilly, though those discussions fell apart and O’Reilly no longer appears to be on the table.

Over the last several months, Fox News seems to have been girding itself for a challenge from the right, installing pro-Trump stalwart Laura Ingraham into its primetime lineup last fall and then standing by her through a recent advertiser boycott sparked by her statements about Parkland-shooting survivor David Hogg. Fox has also maneuvered its website more to the right.

“I think they’re very concerned about it,” said the agent, speaking of Sinclair’s threat. “They don’t let on, but they are.”

Fox News did not reply to request for comment.

Fox News is currently in more than 90 million homes, compared to 80 million for WGN America and 55 million for the Tennis Channel. But, if the Tribune deal goes through, Sinclair will have own more than 200 stations reaching 72 percent of American TV-viewers, giving it tremendous leverage to negotiate with cable providers to carry their networks.

Sinclair has said that it anticipates the Tribune merger to close near the end of the second quarter of this year.

Michael Calderone contributed to this report.


 

Start typing and press Enter to search