DoJ Signals OK to Sinclair-Allbritton Deal on Divestiture of WHTM-TV

WASHINGTON — Sinclair Broadcast Group and Allbritton will have to get rid of WHTM-TV, the ABC affiliate in Harrisburg, Penn., in order for Sinclair’s $963 million acquisition of Allbritton to get past the Department of Justice. The DoJ’s Antitrust Division and the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General filed a civil antitrust lawsuit Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to block the proposed acquisition without the divestiture, which Sinclair announced last month.

Sinclair said on June 23 that it would sell WHTM to Media General, as well as selling the non-license assets of WTAT-TV, the Fox affiliate in Charleston, S.C. to Cunningham Communications, which owns the license; for a combined $97.4 million. Sinclair announced the transactions in anticipation of closing on Allbritton by July 27.

The DoJ determined that “without the required divestiture, prices for broadcast television spot advertising would likely increase in parts of central Pennsylvania.” The filings name Perpetual Corp., the parent company of Allbritton, which has nine TV stations, including WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C.

“Perpetual’s WHTM-TV competes directly with WHP-TV and WLYH-TV, two stations owned or operated by Sinclair, in the sale of broadcast television spot advertising in parts of central Pennsylvania,” said Bill Baer, assistant attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. “The rivalry between the stations has helped to constrain advertising rates....”

Without the divestiture, the DoJ said Sinclair would own or control half of the TV stations selling ads in the Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York designated market area, “and advertisers could be forced to accept price increases due to the loss of competition. To remedy this harm, the proposed settlement requires Sinclair and Perpetual to divest all assets primarily used in the operation of WHTM‑TV to Media General, an independent purchaser approved by the United States.”

The DoJ said it also analyzed the Charleston, S.C., market, and found that “advertisers do not largely view the stations as close substitutes, and even a full merger would not likely result in a substantial lessening of competition.”