Transforming Tribune

Tribune Co. is wooing some of TV and radio's best business builders with the promise that they'll have the opportunity to revolutionize the company.

Tribune Chairman and CEO Sam Zell, who made the deal for the company a year ago but only took it over three months ago, is rapidly changing the place. Zell and Randy Michaels, Tribune's executive VP who heads broadcasting and interactive, are trying to reinvent Tribune, which is comprised of TV stations and newspapers, into a high-growth media company.

Sean Compton, who spent 16 years developing radio programming for Clear Channel, is the latest industry hotshot to join Tribune's team. Last week, Compton came on board as Tribune Broadcasting's senior VP of programming and entertainment. He replaces Tribune veteran Marc Schacher who had been at the company for 29 years. Compton will report to Tribune Broadcasting President Ed Wilson.

Even though he's a tried-and-true radio exec, it's no coincidence that Compton finds himself picking and probably developing programming for Tribune's 23 TV stations. The 34-year-old wunderkind got his start as Michaels' assistant in Cincinnati in 1992, and then worked his way up through Clear Channel.

While at Clear Channel, Compton lured major talent to the company's Premiere Radio Networks. He also renegotiated deals with Steve Harvey and Sean Hannity.

Michaels and Compton have reputations for treating talent well, indicating that Tribune soon will be looking to do the same and transforming the stations in the process. For years, Tribune's TV stations have been programmed with shows such as NBC Universal's Maury and Jerry Springer in daytime, and off-net sitcoms in access and late-night. The company tried to develop first-run programs with studio partners, without great results.

“They are sending a signal that they are looking to more aggressively develop first-run programming. Sean Compton has some very substantial chops on the programming side. It's definitely a changing of the guard,” said one industry insider. “They have two very under-exploited platforms: a station group which has served as The CW's distribution vehicle since that network's inception.

“Stations have been underwhelmed by it performance,” the insider added. “The other platform not to be taken lightly is the [cable-carried] WGN Superstation.”

Tribune also hired XM Satellite Radio's Lee Abrams, who started his new job as Tribune's chief innovation officer on April 1.

Abrams is a radio legend—credited with inventing the album-oriented rock format—who left his 10-year post as XM Satellite Radio's chief creative officer and senior VP where he developed programs with Bob Dylan, Snoop Dogg, Quincy Jones, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis.

“Randy Michaels is possibly the smartest guy I've ever met,” Abrams wrote in his blog. “We are going to re-write the future of media.”

Said Michaels in a statement at the time: “Lee's going to pump new life into our content, re-energize our brands, and get people thinking and working together like they never have before”

Finally, Ed Wilson, who left the Fox Television Network to become president of Tribune Broadcasting, has an extensive background in launching new companies that develop and syndicate programming. Wilson started NBC's syndication arm, NBC Enterprises (now NBC Universal Domestic Television) in 2000.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997 - September 2002.