Exclusive: George Lilly in Acquisition Mode After ABC O&O Deal

SJL Broadcasting President George Lilly is very much in acquisition mode after Wednesday's report that SJL has agreed to acquire WTVG Toledo and WJRT Flint from Disney.

Lilly previously built a strong batch of stations with Montecito Broadcast Group, an SJL predecessor that had been backed by Blackstone Group. After waiting out the economic downturn, he's now keen to build up a group of 6-8 stations, and is looking for No. 1 or No. 2 ranked stations affiliated with the Big Four networks. "We want strong news operations with quality management," he says.

Lilly's family holdings include WSEE and WICU in Erie and a station in Elmira (NY), which makes the pending acquisition a logical geographical fit along the Rust Belt. But Lilly, based in California, says location doesn't figure in to what makes an ideal target for acquisition. "It's never been about geography for us," he says. "Television is television-where is the opportunity?"

The deal is expected to close early in 2011.

Lilly sold WJRT and WTVG to ABC in 1995. WJRT took in $14 million in revenue in 2009, according to BIA/Kelsey, tops in DMA No. 69. WTVG booked $12.8 million last year, trailing Raycom's WTOL in DMA No. 70.

"They fit our profile like a glove," says Lilly, who credits Disney for improving the stations during their decade and a half with the media giant. "They're perfect for what we're trying to accomplish. If you're starting to build a group, what better stations to use as the flagship?"

That the two stations' general managers, David Zamichow and Tom Bryson, were the GMs back when WTVG and WJRT were owned by SJL, made the deal even sweeter for Lilly. He calls them "personal friends."

Lilly says changes at the station level will be minimal. "We'll tweak a little bit, but we'll walk gently," he says. "The greatest challenge is taking a quality station and not dropping the ball."

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the struggling markets where the stations are based-along with a weak M&A market for local television of late--suggest a purchase price on the lower end of the spectrum. Lilly would allow that it was a fair deal for both sides: "Disney's happy and we're happy."

Lilly is indeed pleased to be growing a group again. "We're broadcasters," he says. "This is what we love. This is what we do."

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.