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ION Media to Buy Stations in St. Louis, Columbia and Boise

A leading proponent of growth allowed by the UHF discount, ION Media, which owns 60 independent TV stations around the country, has struck deals to buy three more, the company announced Tuesday.

ION has inked an agreement to buy WRBU in St. Louis and WZRB in Columbia, S.C., both of which are affiliates of ION’s network, with a trust set up after they went into bankruptcy. ION also has struck a deal to acquire KTRV in Boise, Idaho, which is also an ION affiliate, from Block Communications.

The acquisitions would put ION stations, whose programming includes a host of syndicated series, in the country’s 20 biggest markets, and 24 of the top 25 DMAs. The purchases are subject to FCC approval.

Chief executive Brandon Burgess said the acquisitions are part of ION’s ongoing growth strategy, which could include more purchases in the near future.

“We want to round out our distribution, to have nationwide distribution, and we’re pretty close,” he said. “We are buyers, not sellers and I think you’ll see us do more of that.”

In moving ahead with the purchases, ION is banking on a rash of regulatory events in Washington that would allow groups like ION to expand, while also paving the way for affiliate group consolidation, like the Sinclair-Tribune deal.

A key decision came down last week, when a federal court allowed the FCC's April reinstatement of the UHF discount to take effect after it had been lifted. That means UHF TV station ownership only counts for half of the audience reach toward the 39% national ownership cap.

ION, which backed the reinstatement of the discount, said that eliminating the cap immediately decreases its market value, including by forcing the group to be broken up under certain refinancing scenarios.

(Photo via Pictures of Money's FlickrImage taken on Sept. 17, 2015 and used per Creative Commons 2.0 license. The photo was cropped to fit 16x9 aspect ratio.)