Sinclair Laying Groundwork for Fox News Competitor

Company execs are taking meetings with conservative stars as a prelude to launching a competitor to the Murdoch-led juggernaut.

It may be just a matter of time before Fox News gets a real challenger from the right. Conservative media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has long quieted speculation about plans to create a rival to Rupert Murdoch's cable news empire, is making new moves to lay the groundwork for the plan.

Sinclair is speaking with both current and former Fox News personalities about joining the would-be network, which a knowledgeable source says could be led by Tribune Media executive Sean Compton. The company also recently made an overture to conservative radio host Michael Savage, THR has learned. Savage did not respond to a request for comment. (One name not in the mix: ousted Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, whom Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley has said the company isn't looking to hire. Newsmax, a digital conservative news outlet, has courted O'Reilly.)

But before Baltimore-based Sinclair can take on Fox News, it must wait for federal regulators to approve the company's purchase of Tribune Media, which would give Sinclair a cable channel, WGN America, that could be converted to right-leaning news and opinion. "They don't want to cause any waves, but they are preparing for the network as soon as they can," says one source.

Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who has loudly opposed Sinclair's $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune, says the company is "trying to look as nonthreatening as possible and make this deal look as innocuous as possible."

In early May, 21st Century Fox agreed to snap up seven TV stations from Sinclair in a $910 million deal that could help Sinclair get regulatory approval for its Tribune bid.

Publicly, Sinclair leadership has denied rumors of a Fox News challenge. But Copps is unmoved: "Watch what they do and not what they say." A spokesman for Sinclair declined comment, and Sinclair executive chairman David Smith did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Some conservative media insiders, however, don't think Sinclair will go through with a plan to compete against Fox News, and these include one of the television anchors who has spoken with Smith and Sinclair. This person points out that Sinclair "can't even begin to sort of half-make plans" until after the Tribune deal closes. Another source close to Sinclair plays down the significance of meetings with Fox News talent, saying that "a lot of meetings come and go."

One of the most high-profile skeptics is Charles Herring, who, as an executive for conservative news channel One America News Network, has plenty of skin in the game. He says, "Sinclair, even with all its resources, will have an uphill battle in building a national cable news brand that will resonate with its target audience."

This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.