Across the country, workers for Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest operator of regional sports networks in the United States, including Fox Sports Arizona, Fox Sports North, and Fox Sports Detroit, are fed up with their employer's cartoonish greed.
Camera operators, replay operators, audio mixers, video operators, graphics operators, technical directors, stage managers, and utility technicians across the country, who are suddenly out of work due to the coronavirus outbreak, have been speaking out about the insulting treatment they've received from their employer.
Other national and regional networks including ABC, CBS, Turner, and NBC have paid workers fully for cancelled games and events that they were scheduled to work. For its part, Sinclair, perhaps best known for forcing their local news anchors to read canned Trumpian propaganda about the dangers of fake news, offered some workers a one-time $2,500 loan, which they would pay back by having future wages garnished.
"We refuse to believe this is the best it can do," said Leslie Fitzsimmons, vice-president of IATSE Local 414, in a statement when the plan was first announced in late March. "Sinclair's CEO made $7.5 million last year. We've lost all our income. We need help."
In emails sent by RSN presidents in late March to eligible workers and reviewed by VICE, Sinclair laid out the specifics of the plan:
"With the announced postponement of sporting events, there will of course be unexpected financial pressures within our production community. In response, a fund has been created to provide immediate assistance to our eligible team members, defined as those who worked 60% of our games last year. You are receiving this email because you qualify to participate in this program.
"If you decide to participate, you will receive an immediate advance of up to $2,500. Once the events return, you will pay back that advance with a deduction of $250 per event (or half of your per event rate, whichever is lower)."
"It's a slap in the face," Toby Finch, the president of IATSE Local 748, told VICE last week. "It's a band-aid, you know, because that might get me through one month right now and then, say, work returns in July, and now I'm working for 50 percent of my rate. That's creating a financial strain."
"In my opinion it's a total PR move," Charlie Cushing, who serves as the IATSE Local 745's business representative in Minneapolis, told VICE earlier this month. "They were watching the other networks do something, they had some really bad press in the Detroit Free Press. And that's kind of when the wheels started to move and they started to realize, 'Okay, we're the only one that hasn't done anything, we need to come up with something.'"
In an ad that will begin airing today on TV in Los Angeles and digitally in Baltimore, IATSE, which represents Sinclair broadcast technicians in a dozen regions, bashes Sinclair for its pathetic attempt at helping a thousand workers who are suddenly out of work now that all sporting events have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. An IATSE spokesperson said the ad will be rolled out to the other RSN networks in the coming days.
Making things more ridiculous is that Sinclair is still collecting revenue from cable subscribers even though there are no live sports being aired. As the New York Times reported, sports leagues are still charging networks to carry sports even though there are none, and those providers are passing costs on to subscribers. And while the ad market has dried up across all media platforms, a Sinclair SEC filing published on March 2 says that "For the quarter ended December 31, 2019, sports segment affiliate fees constituted 92% of our sports segment revenue." This means that Sinclair is still raking in largely the same revenues as before.
Furthermore, the SEC filing said that a plan to buy back nearly $1 billion in Sinclair stock, first announced in 2018, is still underway. "There is no expiration date and currently, management has no plans to terminate this program. As of December 31, 2019, the remaining authorization under the program was $723 million," the filing said.
Sinclair declined to say whether the buyback program would be paused. It also declined to comment on the claim that its employee assistance program lags behind competitors. Nor would the company address questions about revenues remaining largely the same due to the continued collection of cable fees, whether broadcast technicians would get residuals from the re-airing of old games, and whether the company is or will be receiving financial assistance from the government. Company spokesman Ronn Torossian, a crisis-management flack who has been heavily involved in ultra-right-wing Israeli politics and is a vigorous supporter of Donald Trump, said in a statement to VICE:
Our objective continues to be providing immediate relief to the more than 1,000 freelancers who regularly work with us to deliver the best in live, local sports. Thus far the program has been used by hundreds of freelancers, which we've been very happy to see.
We determined that this initiative was what our company could offer at this time. There is no comparison to the sheer volume of games we produce – approximately 5,000 professional and other events over the course of the year – versus national networks that produce a fraction of that number. Further, right now these games and seasons remain postponed, unlike, say, March Madness, which was canceled. We are operating under the assumption that all of the postponed games will ultimately be played.
Of course, the situation is fluid and we are constantly assessing and re-assessing ways to further assist freelancers as we are able.
Sinclair is banking that postponed games will be played, but that's wishful thinking at best, optimism wielded to screw struggling workers out of much-need financial help. Though there are some half-baked plans for getting the NHL and MLB seasons going, experts agree that could be months away, assuming it comes about at all; full slates of games will certainly not be played. For Cushing, the question is simple.
"So when these games are cancelled," he said, "are they going to pay up?"
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