Fox31 and Channel 2 Sold Again, but Their Future's Still in Flux

Members of the CW2 weather team modeling their logo-emblazoned parkas.
Members of the CW2 weather team modeling their logo-emblazoned parkas. File photo
Fox31 and Channel 2 are among 42 stations that have just been sold to Nexstar Media Group. But a lot still has to happen before Nextar's name appears on the paychecks of employees at the sister outlets, who've been through incredible ownership tumult over the past year-plus. And when the dust finally settles, there's a very good possibility that Fox31 won't be part of the package.

The craziness began in May 2017, when Sinclair Broadcast Group announced the purchase of the aforementioned stations, all in the portfolio of Tribune Media, for a reported $3.9 billion. This move immediately led to speculation that the conglomerate, whose viewership in its biggest markets was estimated at 2.2 million, wanted to create 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 or not. And although some stations, like KOMO in Seattle, tried to soften this edict's blow by airing some of the salvos 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.

Before long, however, questions about whether the transaction would win federal approval led Sinclair to negotiate with broadcasting companies that might be interested in picking up a few of the signals — and 21st Century Fox, the domain of Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch, was interested in snagging Fox31. This development seemed likely to doom Channel 2's news operation, which is put together at Fox31 using shared equipment, resources and personnel.

In August, the Sinclair deal fell part amid a Tribune lawsuit and breach-of-contract accusations, much to the chagrin of Trump, who was looking forward to knowing that dozens of stations would soon be dedicated to lavishing him with praise. Afterward, he tweeted: "So sad and unfair that the FCC wouldn’t approve the Sinclair Broadcast merger with Tribune. This would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People. Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!"

Enter Nexstar, whose 170-plus television stations make it the largest owner of such operations in the country. The price tag for the Tribune properties: around $4.1 million.

Unlike Sinclair, Nexstar isn't overtly fueled by ideology, unless the drive for profits qualifies. For evidence, look no further than the invaluable Open Secrets website, which tracks the people and causes companies back. While Nexstar's political donations tilted toward Republicans during the 2018 campaign cycle, 43 percent of its cash went to Democrats. The only Colorado candidate to get Nexstar money this year was Representative Ken Buck, who came away with the modest sum of $1,000, and no Coloradan from either party received a donation in 2016. Neither did Trump during the year he was elected president — but his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was gifted $5,000.

Whether Fox31 and Channel 2 wind up beneath the Nexstar umbrella is another question. The FCC still has to okay the purchase, and that's hardly guaranteed. Indeed, the feds may balk at approving the transfer of all 42 licenses, which explains why Variety is reporting that "the new-model Fox is expected to seek to buy numerous Tribune-owned Fox affiliates as part of the transaction."

While Fox31 isn't specifically mentioned in the Variety piece, it was one of seven stations in a $910 million agreement jointly announced by Sinclair and 21st Century Fox in May. If Fox31 is sold separately, the future would be wide open for Channel 2 under Nexstar — but there's no telling at this point if the changes would be for good or ill from employees' perspective.

Continue to read the press release about the Tribune-Nexstar pact:
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts