Nexstar, Tribune get FCC nod to merge; commissioner slams UHF discount

Nexstar Media Group is poised to become the biggest local broadcaster in the country after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Monday gave formal approval for its takeover of Tribune Broadcasting.

In California, the takeover deal would pair Tribune stations Fox stations KTXL (Channel 40, Sacramento) and KSWB (Channel 69, San Diego) and CW affiliate KTLA (Channel 5, Los Angeles) with Nexstar stations in Fresno, Bakersfield and San Francisco.

“It is clear that this transaction can be expected to be a win for viewers due to certain efficiencies and consumer opportunities to be gained,” FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly said in a statement that accompanied the agency’s order on Monday. “Nexstar has a history of increasing news content on the stations it acquires, especially by providing stations access to its state and local public affairs resources. I expect it will do the same here, consistent with commitments made in the transfer applications.”

That transfer application includes selling a handful of Tribune and Nexstar stations to rival companies, including Scripps and TEGNA. Tribune’s biggest station in its largest TV market, WPIX-TV (Channel 11), will be transferred to Scripps, according to FCC filings.

Not all commissioners were pleased with the outcome. One said a controversial concession known as the UHF discount allowed Nexstar to leverage a decades-old exception to become a media behemoth.

The discount allowed local broadcast companies to own a nearly-unlimited amount of stations on the UHF band (channels 14 to 69) at a time when most were vying for a limited amount of VHF slots (channels 2 to 13). In the era of analog broadcasting, that made sense — VHF carried farther and were generally clearer and had less interference compared to UFH stations.

But all full-power broadcast stations transitioned to digital transmissions in 2009, and many are broadcasting now on UHF with channel numbers being digitally altered to their legacy analog positions in order to maintain local station branding.

“There is not a broadcast engineer in the country who could say with a straight face that continuing to honor the UHF discount makes any technical sense,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in a statement. “Our decision today depends entirely on counting stations as if it does. It relies on the fiction of the UHF discount still being technically viable in order to ensure that the new broadcasting company that results from this transaction clears important ownership limits in the law. This is unfortunate.”

Those words didn’t stop the bubbly from flowing at Nexstar on Monday: The FCC’s formal sign-off was the last regulatory hurdle the company needed in order to close the deal after it reached a settlement with the Department of Justice in late July over its divestiture plans. Nexstar says it anticipates closing on the deal “shortly.”

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