It’s the Rocky Balboa of Philly television stations. PHL17, based in a fenced-in, former A&P supermarket beside train tracks in West Philadelphia, punches above its weight against network biggies 6ABC, NBC10, Fox29, and CBS3 with a mix of locally produced morning news, daytime talk shows, and syndicated reruns in the early evening.
“Comfort food,” says general manager Vince Giannini of PHL17 offerings, which include The Goldbergs and The Big Bang Theory.
Giannini recently struck a deal for the Philadelphia TV rights to 25 Union soccer games a year, an attempt to stay relevant to sports fans after Comcast took the Phillies games.
And for more than two decades, “the great entertainer” — as the station branded itself in the past — has aired the Mummers Parade: an extravaganza of live footage, Facebook live streams, and video clips produced by the 50-person PHL17 staff, reaching about 200,000 Philadelphia-area homes every 15 minutes on Jan. 1.
“You do the most with what you can,” Giannini said.
But today PHL17 is at a crossroads. Parent company Tribune Media has reached a $6.6 billion deal, including debt, to sell itself to the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, potentially creating an owner with more than 200 television stations.
Sinclair, based in Hunt Valley, Md., has grown through relentless acquisitions of stations, mostly in small and midsize TV markets, over decades. And Tribune brings it big-market TV stations, not only in Philadelphia but also in New York (WPIX), Washington (WDCW), Chicago (WGN), Dallas (KDAF), Houston (KIAH), and Los Angeles (KTLA).
Already the nation’s largest station owner, Sinclair says the deal will enable it to reach more than 70 percent of the nation’s TV audience and lead to stronger local TV stations as they compete for advertising and audience with Facebook, Google, and new online streamers.
Critics see many problems, ranging from local TV newsroom interference by Trump-friendly Sinclair to higher pay-TV bills as Sinclair uses its massive audience to squeeze higher fees from Comcast, DirecTV, Charter, and other pay-TV distributors to carry its stations.
“This merger should have been dead on arrival,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner and one of many who has lobbied against it. “No company should be empowered to have that much reach. This is what I said about Comcast/NBCU and it’s what I say about this one.”
Public and political attention on media issues in Washington over the last year has focused on net neutrality and the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner Inc.
Copps and other industry observers view the Sinclair/Tribune deal as equally important in that it could trigger a cavalcade of big TV station group mergers, leading to staff cuts and more homogenization of local television news.
The Federal Communications Commission, they say, seems to be rewriting broadcast-TV regulations to ease the Sinclair/Tribune merger, creating potentially higher ownership caps, a looser interpretation of the audience reach of TV stations on the UHF spectrum (such as PHL17), and the elimination of a requirement that TV stations maintain studios in home TV markets.
This contrasts sharply with the Trump administration’s response to the proposed AT&T/Time Warner deal, which the Justice Department has sued to block unless AT&T divests assets. Time Warner owns the 24-hour news channel CNN, which President Trump blasts as “fake news.”
“There should be a standard over whether a merger goes through and it should be content-neutral,” said David T.Z. Mindich, chair of the journalism department at Temple University. “At least on the surface, there seems to be some hypocrisy” with the Trump administration insisting that AT&T sell CNN to complete its deal for Time Warner Inc. but pushing the Sinclair-Tribune deal.
“We should welcome different points of view,” said Mindich. “So if Sinclair is more right-wing than others, that’s good. What I worry about is that we are not talking about a slant but a systemic effort to put one viewpoint above others.”
Founded in 1971 by Julian Sinclair Smith with one station, Sinclair is still controlled by the Smith family. And while over the years the company contributed to both Democrats and Republicans, seeing itself as nonpartisan, Sinclair is widely viewed as leaning Republican. In April, the company hired Boris Epshteyn, a former spokesman for Trump, as its political commentator and chief political analyst. Sinclair provides its stations with what it calls must-air segments, one of which is Epshteyn’s “Bottom Line With Boris.”
Victor Pickard, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “Sinclair has a long track record of pushing ultraconservative” views and the must-run segments counter what he calls a “professional code” of television station owners.
Philip Salas, assistant teaching professor in cinema and television at Drexel University, expects TV stations in big markets such as PHL17 to air the must-run Sinclair segments — “a corporate policy is a corporate policy,” he said.
Salas added that with the FCC easing rules on hometown studios, a potential Sinclair/Tribune could lead the company to consolidate newsrooms for New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore TV markets, thus cutting local news costs. He believes that if the merger goes through, Sinclair could eliminate PHL17’s nightly news at 10, which is produced in partnership with 6ABC.
Sinclair disputes that such changes are in the works, and says it has no plans to centralize newsrooms. “We will be just as committed to local news there as we are in our other successful markets,” the firm said in a statement.
Giannini, a 27-year Tribune Media employee who has run PHL17 for over a decade, said a merger should be good for PHL17 because the station would then be part of a “pure-play broadcast company” — or one with all its focus on television. For many years, PHL17 was part of a company with both TV stations and newspapers, among them the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and Los Angeles Times.
On a recent walking tour of PHL17, one of Giannini’s stops was in its studio. It was here in the 1980s that PHL17 hit the big time with Dancin’ on Air, a dance music reality show. Pop star Madonna made her TV debut on the show and so did the British band Duran Duran, at least in the United States. Dancin’ on Air spawned the cable show Dance Party USA, which aired on cable’s USA Network between 1986 and 1992.
Asked what most people in the region know about PHL17, Giannini quickly responded: “The Phillies.” The station aired baseball games for years and PHL17 credits its TV rights deal with helping pay for Pete Rose’s salary when he was with the team. But the Phillies’ TV rights migrated in 2014 and are now held by Comcast’s cable channels and NBC10, which Comcast also owns.
The Mummers, Giannini said, connect with viewers in South and Northeast Philadelphia and keep the station relevant.
Tom Dudzic, a 32-year-old bass fiddler with the Quaker String Band who lives in Fort Washington, agrees. He struts in the parade and can’t watch the show in real time. So he records it on his DVR and views it repeatedly afterward. “I have watched it three or four times and it’s only Jan. 3,” he said.
He didn’t have any ideas on the proposed deal with Sinclair, which will likely get a completed FCC review soon. The FCC’s 180-day “shot clock” expires this month.
“Good luck, Channel 17,” Dudzic said. “I hope they continue to love us.”