As a kid growing up in Greater Boston, I could never get the picture on Channel 38 to come in as clearly as it did on channels 4, 5 and 7, which was disappointing because Red Sox games were on 38. If you are old enough to remember rabbit ears on televisions, you might have experienced similar frustrations with higher-numbered channels in whichever city you lived.
For viewers without cable, a national transition to digital television, completed in 2009, resolved the reception disparity between ultra high frequency (UHF) channels, 14-83, and very high frequency (VHF) channels, 2-13. Yet the Federal Communications Commission still regards UHF channels as inferior, a status that the station owners who broadcast on such channels might find insulting if not for the benefits they enjoy as a result.
The most notable beneficiary, at the moment, is Sinclair Broadcast Group, a subject of intense media scrutiny since it recently required local news anchors at its stations to record messages stoking suspicions of “fake stories” in the mainstream media. Already the nation's largest owner and operator of local TV stations, with 173, Sinclair is seeking regulatory approval for a $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media, whose portfolio includes 42 stations.
Sinclair says the acquisition would extend its reach to 72 percent of U.S. households — exceeding the regulatory limit, 39 percent, by a wide margin. Sinclair would seemingly have to flip many Tribune stations, or sell a chunk of its existing stock, to achieve compliance.
But a rule that predates my viewing of fuzzy Red Sox games allows station owners such as Sinclair to count only half the reach of their UHF channels. For example: A Sinclair station such as WBFF, a Fox affiliate in the Baltimore market, reaches 1 percent of the country. Because it airs on Channel 45, however, it adds only 0.5 percent to Sinclair's total.
Thanks to the UHF discounts, Sinclair estimates that though its true reach after acquiring Tribune would be 72 percent of U.S. households, its reach in the eyes of the FCC would be 45.5 percent. That's still over the cap, but 45.5 is a lot closer to 39 than is 72, meaning that Sinclair can keep many more stations than it otherwise could.
A bill in Congress aims to close the UHF loophole, created in 1984. Because UHF signals no longer have limited reach, it no longer makes sense to grant a discount, contends Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), a sponsor of the bill.
“This is a standard that is absolutely, technically obsolete,” Price said. “It has no meaning in the modern media world.”
The FCC did eliminate the UHF discount at one time — but only briefly. With a Democratic majority, the commission voted in 2016 to count the full audience reach of UHF channels. With Republicans in control under President Trump, however, the FCC reversed course last year.
Chairman Ajit Pai argued that although the technical rationale for a UHF discount might be outdated, the discount should not have been scrapped without considering whether station owners should remain confined to reaching 39 percent of U.S. households.
“I'm ready to have that debate,” Price said. “There's nothing magical about 39 percent, I guess. ... But let's have that debate straightforwardly. Let's not have something like this fraudulent UHF discount brought into the matter.”
One way or another, Sinclair could expand its local-media empire. If the FCC leaves the UHF discount in place, Sinclair could keep the vast majority of the 215 stations it would own or operate after buying Tribune. And if the FCC, or Congress, closes the UHF loophole, the 39 percent cap could rise or even disappear at the same time, allowing Sinclair to grow, anyway.