Last year, Sinclair Broadcast Group, a controversial organization memorably ripped by HBO's John Oliver, reached an agreement to purchase a group of Tribune Media stations that included two in Denver, Fox31 and KWGN, also known as Denver's Channel 2. The feds have yet to approve the sale, but in May, 21st Century Fox committed to buying some of the outlets, including Fox31, in a development that's expected to break the regulatory logjam.
What will this move mean to Channel 2, which is currently tied to Fox31 through a sister-station pact? Sources who've spoken to Westword think odds are good that its local news operation will be eliminated, possibly as soon as year's end, in favor of a nationally produced block of conservative news programming.
This theory is speculative, and while it's eminently logical for reasons laid out below, there's no guarantee it will happen. If it does, however, it could mean the disappearance of familiar on-screen faces such as evening anchor Mike Landess and morning host Ernie Bjorkman, plus plenty of behind-the-scenes producers, among others.
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Sinclair rose to Oliver's attention in May 2017, when it bought 42 Tribune Media outlets for a reported $3.9 billion. This move immediately led to speculation that the conglomerate, whose viewership in its biggest markets has been estimated at 2.2 million, was interested in creating a national network of GOP-friendly stations that might challenge the dominance of cable powerhouse Fox News.
Even before the Tribune Media buy, Sinclair had been using its properties to spread a conservative message via commentaries by former executive Mark Hyman, known for attacks on so-called snowflakes and a defense of the Washington Redskins football team, whose executives refuse to replace a name that many people view as racist. Also part of the Sinclair team is Boris Epshteyn, a former adviser to President Donald Trump whose own invective flies with the right wing.
The Hyman-Epshteyn packages are designated as "must-run," meaning that affiliates have to include them in newscasts whether local managers want to do so or not. And although some affiliates, like KOMO in Seattle, have tried to soften this edict's blow by airing some of the screeds during the wee hours, the prospect that this could change in the future likely influenced Fox31 news director Holly Gauntt to jump to Denver7 mere months after Sinclair's deal was announced.
With Fox31 moving to 21st Century Fox, the domain of Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch, Channel 2 is almost certain to wind up in Sinclair's portfolio — and insiders say this split endangers the latter's news operation.
Right now, Channel 2's news productions are put together at Fox31, using shared equipment, resources and personnel. Some of the on-air talent, such as Landess and Bjorkman, only appear on Channel 2, and the signal has its own producers, as well. But most of the reporters can be seen on both stations.
After the sale is complete, Fox31 and Channel 2 could make a new deal that would keep this approach in place. But TV observers with whom Westword has spoken see that as unlikely. If Sinclair really is trying to take down Fox News, they say, there's no incentive for a Fox-affiliated station to lend a helping hand. That's particularly true when it comes to programs such as Daybreak, Channel 2's morning show, which would likely compete directly with Fox31's own a.m. offerings.
With Fox31 out of the picture, Channel 2 could only continue to produce local news on its own if Sinclair paid to build a brand-new facility and hired a new crew — a possibility, but a hugely expensive one, especially in light of KWGN's ratings, which are small compared to other local-news purveyors in Denver.
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As for what might replace local news on Channel 2, a possible answer can be found in a recent Politico report that says Sinclair executives are currently conceiving a collection of news programs that would run between three and six hours. Such shows would basically compete against Fox News's prime-time staples without Sinclair having to launch a 24-hour news channel into an already oversaturated market.
In Denver, this cost-effective alternative could mean national news produced by Sinclair airing from 4 to 10 p.m., sans any local component.
The scenario is among the many being discussed by Fox31 and Channel 2 employees these days, and we're told there's not yet a sense of either panic or doom among those employed by the latter. Some folks are said to be fairly relaxed about the sales and expect the business partnership between the two stations to continue into the future.
That would be good for Denver viewers, since more news is better than less. But much grimmer prospects linger on the horizon.