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Tribune Hopes '13 Is Lucky

While local TV leaders are not exactly relishing 2013's dim revenue prospects, one station group is primed for better things in the coming year. With a highly respected programming chief expected to come on board as corporate CEO and an exit from an interminable stay in Chapter 11 presumably in the offing, Tribune execs are pumped to flex the group’s distribution and programming arms to their full might.

Tribune has taken its lumps since descending into bankruptcy late in 2008, but industry watchers say the station group is on solid ground—especially with Peter Liguori reportedly coming on board to run the show. “It’s one of the few local groups that’s interested in creating genuine content,” says David Bank, managin g director of equity research at RBC Capital Markets. “What has the most value is content, so I think Peter walks into a pretty good culture.”

For employees with four or fewer years on the job at Tribune, all they’ve known of its corporate culture is bankruptcy. Yet company insiders say it has been business as usual on the broadcast side for years, with stations increasing their local profiles through expanded news hours. Station-level leadership has stayed relatively consistent; departures include Marty Wilke exiting the top spot at WGN Chicago and Betty Ellen Berlamino leaving WPIX New York. Both are now running CBS-owned stations.

While Tribune has suggested for years that it is close to exiting bankruptcy, filing numerous plans for reorganization, it appears that may actually happen in the near term—and shareholders believe Liguori’s official coronation as CEO will follow. A Tribune rep would not comment on the status of the bankruptcy exit or on Liguori.

reached out to a wide range of analysts, station executives and consultants to see how they envision Liguori playing his hand. Sources were unanimous in believing Tribune’s newspapers would move—quickly. The Los Angeles Times will likely find a vanity buyer in Hollywood, while the Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel might garner prices north of rock bottom too. With strong stations in both latter markets, and a rich heritage in print, Hearst may give those papers a look, though there would be regulatory matters to consider.

Perhaps most compelling is the fate of flagship Chicago Tribune. Sentimentality aside, the sources believe the Tribune may move as well. Perhaps the rival Sun-Times will make a play; speculation abounds in the Windy City as to whether it will remain a two-newspaper town.

WGN-AM, a stepchild as the lone radio asset in the portfolio, may also go on the block, while an equity piece of Food Network would bring considerable return. Gabelli & Co. said in a recent report that the 23 stations would be attractive to other broadcasters, such as CBS and Gannett, but most industry insiders believe the stations will be retained. “You don’t bring a guy like Peter Liguori on board to liquidate,” says one TV veteran.

Tribune’s TV stations are the corporate jewels. While several are distant also-rans in their markets, the stations have considerable upside, nearly all the sources say. Tribune’s reach, at 35% of U.S. households, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, is the envy of just about every group not named CBS or Fox, while cable channel WGN America reinforces the TV brand nationwide.

While his time at Oprah Winfrey’s OWN was undistinguished, Liguori is the rare universally liked and respected television industry veteran, a guy with deep programming chops and experience both in broadcast and cable. “He’s a smart guy with great programming instincts,” says one Chicago TV vet. “He’s a good fit there.”

Liguori will find similarly creative broadcasters at Tribune in Sean Compton, president of programming and entertainment, and Nils Larsen, broadcasting CEO, and a batch of content initiatives ranging from The Bill Cunningham Show to the multicast channel Antenna TV to a big stake in the Arsenio Hall reboot.

“I have a lot of respect for the management team,” Bank says. “People think very highly of these guys. They’re in the content business, not just the distribution business, and that’s how success will be achieved [in the future]. These guys are forward-thinking.”

The likes of KTLA Los Angeles’ morning news and WGN Chicago’s 9 p.m. news are examples that the Tribune way, offbeat as it may be, can work. Liguori will move quickly to put the ghosts of Sam Zell and Randy Michaels and Tribune’s other controversial past leaders behind him, and boost morale from the ground up.

“When you’re out of Chapter 11, you’ve got a ton more flexibility,” says Bill Hague, Chicago-based senior VP at Frank N. Magid Associates. “The questions are removed, and you’re moving forward.”

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