St. Louis at Center of Action Amid Station Shuffle

Pretty much all the hot issues bouncing around local TV these days—mergers and acquisitions, the fate of joint sales agreements (JSAs), African-American ownership—are also bouncing around a quirky little station situation in St. Louis. Go back a little further, when hasty affiliation switches were the trend in local broadcast, and that’s part of the St. Louis equation too.

All this, stemming from a trifling $7.75 million deal.

In the dying days of 2013, Ion Media Networks swung a pact for WRBU St. Louis, then the MyNetworkTV affiliate in DMA No. 21. The station was the centerpiece in a deal that included WZRB Columbia (S.C.) and now-defunct WAZE Evansville (Ind.). Up against the FCC’s ownership cap, Ion agreed to fund $7.75 million for distributions to creditors, putting the stations in a trust.

The trust also embodies another recent broadcast trend: a former station group chief coming out of retirement to be the license holder following an offbeat deal, such as former Belo chief Jack Sander with a handful of Gannett properties. In Ion’s case, it is Gary Chapman, former CEO of the LIN group.

In Gary We Trust

Chapman also served a trustee role with the former Freedom stations during that group’s bankruptcy stint. “We bring 40 years of experience to the table,” says Chapman, who is 70, of his graybeard, license-holding brethren. “We believe we can make a contribution to the organization.”`

St. Louis represents the largest market where Ion, which shows a mix of off-net programming on its 73 stations, did not have an outlet. Ion must sell WRBU within a year and cannot operate it via a JSA or other sharing deal. Brandon Burgess, Ion chairman/CEO, was on vacation last week and unavailable for comment.

Ion’s deal precipitated a small flurry of affiliation switches and has left St. Louis without a MyNetwork- TV (MNT) affiliate since last month. While St. Louis represents 1.1% of U.S. homes, an MNT insider says WBRU’s viewing was a non-factor in its national ratings and notes that MNT is in discussions with parties interested in affiliating with MyNet.

WZRB’s shift to Ion in Columbia left The CW without a home in DMA No. 77 until WKTC—the market’s MyNetworkTV affiliate—agreed to air CW programming from 8-10 p.m., followed by MNT programming from 10 to midnight, starting March 17.

Missouri Loves Company

The orphaning of MyNetworkTV is hardly the biggest local TV story in St. Louis, which has witnessed a tremendous amount of action in recent months. Gannett closed on its Belo acquisition, including KMOV St. Louis, late in 2013; already owning KSDK in the market, Gannett hired Sander to hold the license. Gannett and Sander then flipped KMOV and two other stations to Meredith right before Christmas.

Around the same time, Tribune closed on its acquisition of Local TV, firming up the already fraternal relationship between St. Louis’ KPLR and KTVI.

Marv Danielski, former Frank N. Magid senior VP, came on board at KSDK as VP/station manager in December. The station is moving past a scandal where an undercover reporter investigating school safety in January unwittingly prompted a high school lockdown; the station apologized.

Roberts Broadcasting, owned by St. Louis-reared Roberts brothers Michael and Steven, entered into bankruptcy in 2011. The sale of Roberts’ stations to Ion was a blow for the already painfully thin ranks of minority station owners. By a recent Wall Street Journal count, the only remaining African-American owners of commercial TV stations are Armstrong Williams and Tougaloo College.

Michael Roberts did not return a call for comment.

Chapman: JSA All the Way

The FCC’s plans to overhaul JSAs has largely frozen up the formerly torrid M&A landscape. Chapman— who got his start at KSDK St. Louis in 1967— has a role in the history of station shared services agreements. He and Paul Karpowicz, then VP of the LIN group, in 1991 orchestrated what is believed to be the nation’s first local marketing agreement, between Michigan stations WOTV Grand Rapids and WUHQ Battle Creek (now WOOD and WOTV, respectively).

Keeping the JSA option open for broadcasters will help lesser stations survive, Chapman says. “I’ve seen how many stations have been saved from going into bankruptcy, which is exactly where the Roberts stations ended up,” he says. “The threat of putting other stations in this same situation can’t be in the public interest.”

Michael Malone

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.