The move meant to send a message to Sinclair
According to a report in Bloomberg, 21st Century Fox is reportedly in talks with Ion networks about a partnership which would let them operate a large number of Fox affiliates in several markets.
Moreover, the move could strip Fox affiliates in many Sinclair markets, including those being picked up in a transaction from Tribune Broadcasting, owner of fourteen Fox affiliates.
The move would pair Ion’s 60 stations – including company-owned WCPX-TV here in Chicago, with Fox’s 28 stations – including Fox-owned duopolies WFLD and CW affiliate WPWR. Ion would take over 26 Fox affiliates in markets where Sinclair has a Fox affiliate. If the deal between Sinclair and Tribune holds, Sinclair would own 28 percent of Fox’s affiliates not owned by the network.
The relationship between Fox and Sinclair has soured considerably since the latter outbid them to buy Tribune, owner of WGN-TV here. Fox is concerned Sinclair would have tremendous leverage in terms of negotiations from retransmission consent revenue to pre-emptions over network programming. There were also rumors Sinclair would start a conservative news network to compete with Fox News, with Sinclair has denied.
Sinclair already owns or operates Fox affiliates in Pittsburgh, Baltimore (where there is no Ion affiliate), San Antonio, Buffalo, and Champaign-Springfield, among others. Tribune would contribute Fox affiliates in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, San Diego, Grand Rapids, and Harrisburg,Pa. among others.
It is not clear how the new partnership would work since talks are in particularly in the preliminary stages. If this deal can be pulled off, it would trigger perhaps the biggest affiliation change in history – Fox was behind the last major swap in 1994, when twelve major-market stations owned by New World Communications became Fox affiliates. Two of them – WJW in Cleveland and WITI in Milwaukee – are now owned by Tribune.
A few weeks ago, T Dog Media profiled Ion, a little known network formed out of the ashes of the failed Pax network. In recent years, the network has mainly focused on reruns of procedural shows while airing very little original programming with the lone “original” show on the schedule is Canadian import Saving Hope, which had an earlier run on NBC. Ion praised the FCC’s decision to reinstate the UHF discount, allowing Sinclair to buy Tribune.
Many believe the news may be nothing more than a negotiating ploy, something Fox is known for. A few years ago, Fox nearly purchased two low-power stations on the fringes of the Seattle market to replace Tribune’s KCPQ-TV as a Fox affiliate because Tribune would not sell the station to them (an affiliation deal was later struck with KCPQ.) In 2013, Fox threatened to take its programming to cable if Aereo – which took broadcast signals and redistributed them via the internet without consent – was allowed to continue. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Aereo and the company later folded.