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Monday, June 19, 2006

It's not always about the newspapers, you know. . .

Monday, Jun 19
Fishbowl LA

As speculation about the future of the Tribune Co. rages like an August wildfire down Las Flores Canyon, Jenny Hontz provides another useful angle on the Chicago powerhouse's potential break-up: What are the possibilities for the non-newspaper assets?

Hontz sends us this report:

With the Chandlers calling for a sale of Tribune Co. assets, we're wondering who might bid for the TV properties, including KTLA here in LA.

Most of the media chatter has focused on private equity firms. Taking the TV stations private makes some sense, given that broadcasting isn't a growth business that can readily boost a public company's stock price.

But don't count CBS out. Whispers of a CBS-Tribune deal were in the air last fall, and CBS (along with Warner Bros.) will soon be programming the Tribune stations anyway as part of its new CW network partnership. So why not own and control them? The biggest profits in the broadcast business stem from the station side, not from the parent networks. Trib stations also would fit nicely with CBS' core business.

Owning two stations in the top markets is no longer a problem, and CBS could sell any Tribune stations that push it over national ownership caps. In any case, the FCC might relax media ownership rules again very soon. And, let's face it, most companies close the deal first and ask permission later.

Time Warner is another possible buyer now that a court struck down rules preventing cable operators from owning TV stations. Still, TW never made a play for Tribune when it owned the anemic WB network. Could things change if the performance of the stations improves this fall under the banner of the CW network, which is launching with the biggest hits--and we use that term loosely--from UPN and the WB?

Time Warner has enough headaches at the moment. "I just don't think that Time Warner wants to invest in stations," says a source at the company. "They look at broadcast as a side business and stations as a declining asset. Whenever it's come up on the West Coast, there is no appetite for it in NY."

However, "CBS is a logical potential buyer," says the Warner Bros. source. Of course, it all comes down to price. "Whenever I have heard about a sale mentioned, they want too much for anyone to get to excited about it."

CBS got a little testy when we started sniffing around. "Why don't you stop trying to make things up and find something that's happening to report on?" a spokesman huffed.
Perhaps CBS, a name synonymous with old media, is feeling sensitive because its own stock price hasn't benefited from the Viacom spinoff.

CBS honchos boldly predicted a few months ago that the CW would turn a profit its first year, but it's been a slow year for upfront ad sales. The CW network is selling ads at roughly the same price the WB earned last year.

Meanwhile, one source urges us to keep an eye on Comcast as a potential player. "Tribune, which owns the Chicago Cubs, recently partnered with Comcast on a Chicago regional sports network," he said. "Regional sports and news networks are the top generators of local ad sales in their respective markets. By combining, the two could dominate local advertising in places like Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco and other key cities."

Stay tuned.

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