The TV landscape in Rhode Island is going to change as result of the proposed merger of Media General, owner of WJAR-TV NBC 10, and Providence-based LIN Media LLC, owner of WPRI-TV CBS 12 and operator of WNAC-TV Fox 64. One of the stations is expected to get a new owner due to federal regulations that in most cases prevent ownership of more than one station in the same market.
The two media companies have TV stations that overlap in five markets, including Providence; Birmingham, Ala.; Green Bay, Wis.; Mobile, Ala.; and Savannah, Ga.
“We know we’re going to have to deal with those and, in most cases, swap or sell,” said Media General President and CEO George L. Mahoney in a March 21 webcast and conference call for investors to discuss the merger.
“The basic rule is that no one can own more than one station in the market, unless there are at least eight stations in the market and no more than one of the stations can be in the top four,” said attorney David Silverman, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C., who specializes in broadcast issues.
The Providence-New Bedford market doesn’t have eight stations, said Silverman, which are defined as full-power broadcasting stations, not cable or satellite subscriber services.
In Rhode Island, LIN Media owns WPRI-TV, and also operates, but doesn’t own, WNAC-TV.
“That’s a shared-services agreement where stations can share facilities or staff,” said Silverman. “LIN may have to stop operating WNAC. One thing the FCC is discussing is the situation where one company owns one station and operates another. I think the FCC is going to disallow that here.”
Before the deal can be finalized, which is expected in early 2015, it must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission, possibly by other federal agencies and the shareholders of Media General and LIN Media.
The anticipated shift of ownership suggests varied scenarios to media professionals and media watchers. Some see WJAR-TV as the likely one to be sold or swapped for a station in another market; others think it would be WPRI-TV.
“The FCC is protective of diversity of voices in the marketplace and between the Channel 10 and Channel 12 ratings, that’s likely a bigger percent of the audience than the regulators are comfortable having,” said Holland Cooke, a Block Island-based media consultant who has held on-air and management positions in broadcasting.