After You. No, After You

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Cable operators trying to block the Sinclair Broadcast Group-Tribune Media merger could wind up getting help from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, given that the Federal Communications Commission is taking its sweet, deliberative time to review a deal that keeps changing and is being watched from the Beltway to Wall Street.

FCC chair Ajit Pai has declined to say he would delay a decision on the deal until the court rules. But that decision — the oral argument was held in April — could come any time (decisions are announced every Tuesday and Friday), so the FCC may do no more than conduct its due diligence to have the court beat it to the punch.

If the court reversed the FCC’s reinstatement of the UHF discount, the deal would likely have to be unwound. Here is The Wire’s back-of-the-tea-leaf take on why a Sinclair decision isn’t imminent:

• The FCC set a July 12 deadline for comments on the latest version of the deal and is not even expected to restart the deal “shot clock” until then.
• Pai will almost certainly not circulate the decision for a vote outside a public meeting given its prominence and the “transparency” blowback he would get.
• As a practical matter, the vote could not come July 12, since the meeting happens before the last comments are due.

Given that July 11 is the date on which the FCC, by custom, will release the tentative agenda for the Aug. 2 meeting, the item won’t be on that list. It could be added later, but again, that would at least give the appearance of rushing to make an early August meeting.

So, the earliest the deal would likely be voted is Aug. 2, but perhaps not until Sept. 26.

While Pai supports, as a general rule, broadcasters being allowed to scale up to take on MVPD competition, he could achieve that despite a court defeat for his return of the UHF discount. He is teeing up a separate decision that could raise the cap but scrap the discount, or leave it scrapped if the court vacates it.

According to various sources inside the Beltway, Sinclair’s efforts to keep its hand in spinoff stations, including via sidecar deals, have put Pai in a tough position as he continues to take heat over the deal.