Sinclair Broadcast buying eight stations for nearly $1B

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.'s buying spree continued Monday when the Hunt Valley broadcaster announced its largest deal to date at nearly $1 billion.

Sinclair plans to buy eight larger-market television stations, including NewsChannel 8 and the ABC affiliate in Washington for $985 million.

It is buying the stations from Allbritton Communications, the Arlington, Va.-based parent of the Politico website, which plans to focus on its Internet-based media business.

The deal, which Sinclair will pay for either with a bank loan or by tapping the capital markets, is expected to close in the fourth quarter.

If the acquisition is approved by the Federal Communication Commission, Sinclair will take on seven ABC affiliates, which together reach about 5 percent of U.S. households.

But it is the acquisition of NewsChannel 8, a cable news network that currently covers the capital region, that raises the intriguing possibility of Sinclair creating a national cable news channel.

"To buy a full-blown news operation in our nation's capital and an infrastructure that allows us to be connected to our branches of government and be at the pulse of national issues is a once-in-a lifetime event," said David Smith, Sinclair's president and CEO, in a statement. "We are especially excited to acquire the NewsChannel 8 local news channel, not only for the content it can provide our existing news stations, but moreover because their regional cable presence provides the perfect platform should we decide to expand it into other markets, especially given the amount of local news we produce across our entire portfolio."

Other ABC affiliates that are part of the transaction air in Birmingham, Ala.; Little Rock, Ark.; Tulsa, Okla.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Charleston, S.C.; and Roanoke, Va.

Sinclair currently owns stations in Birmingham, Harrisburg and Charleston. The company expects to sell those stations' licenses in order to comply with FCC local television ownership rules. Under those rules, a single entity is only permitted to own two television stations in the same local market if at least one of them is not ranked among the top four stations in audience share, among other conditions.

The plans fit Sinclair's growth strategy, said Edward J. Atorino, a New York-based analyst with The Benchmark Company LLC.

"They look for good markets with good stations where they see room to improve the ratings and profits," Atorino said.

The Allbritton deal is the fifth Sinclair has announced this year and puts the company on track for a total of $1.9 billion worth of acquisitions that would add 54 stations to its roster.

The spree began in late February with a $99 million deal to purchase four stations from Cox Media Group for $99 million. That deal closed in May.

Sinclair agreed in early March to buy 18 stations from Barrington Broadcasting Group for $370 million. A month later, it announced a deal to acquire Fisher Communications Inc., with 20 stations, for $373.3 million.

Last month, Sinclair said it reached an agreement to buy Titan Television Broadcast Group, owner of four television stations in three markets, for $115.4 million, and take over Titan's agreements to provide sales and other services to two additional stations.

Most of the stations it is purchasing are in small to midsize markets.

Including the announced deals, Sinclair would own, operate or provide programming or other services to 149 TV stations in 76 markets, reaching more than 38 percent of all U.S. television households.

The growth of Sinclair, known for the conservative political leanings of its executives, has drawn some criticism.

"The rapid expansion of Sinclair Broadcast Group — which is poised to double the number of stations it controls nationwide — is unwelcome news for local TV viewers," said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, a D.C.-based group that says it advocated for a vibrant news media. "The company's cookie-cutter approach to local news and repeated use of the airwaves to push a partisan agenda are well known. And the idea that one company should be allowed to control so many stations in so many markets is simply outrageous. Viewers need competing newsrooms and access to a range of viewpoints on local issues."

The company caused a stir just before the 2004 presidential election when it directed its stations to air portions of a documentary that criticized Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's anti-war activism. After analysts warned that the company could face retribution from regulators and lose favor with advertisers and investors, Sinclair stations aired less of the film, "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," adding portions of a pro-Kerry documentary. At the time, executives said the program had been mischaracterized by the media.