News Column

Tough Decisions Await New Tribune Co. Board

Jan. 1, 2013

Robert Channick

L.A. Times
L.A. Times, a Tribune company, emerged from bankruptcy.

Whether that means buying, selling or keeping the company intact is a story that will begin to unfold in 2013. But insiders say the new owners -- senior creditors Oaktree Capital Management; Angelo, Gordon & Co.; and JPMorgan Chase & Co. -- won't be in a rush to make those decisions after a contentious four-year journey through Chapter 11 bankruptcy left the reorganized company in strong financial shape.

"We're really looking forward to the opportunities and the possibilities with this asset base, with over $11 billion in debt removed from the balance sheet," said Ken Liang, a managing director at Oaktree and a member of the new board.

Tribune Co. plunged into bankruptcy in December 2008, saddled with $13 billion in debt from real estate investor Sam Zell's heavily leveraged buyout one year earlier. It emerged from bankruptcy Monday, relatively debt-free and generating cash.

The company owns 23 television stations, including WGN-Ch. 9; national cable channel WGN America; eight daily newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune; and other media assets, all of which the reorganization plan valued at $4.5 billion after cash distributions and new financing.

Tribune Co.'s biggest challenge has been declining revenue and cash flow as the advertisers that sustained it through the years defected to digital media alternatives. But 2012 was a slight improvement, likely boosted in part by election year ad spending in the company's broadcasting unit.

Data released Monday by the company showed that after several years of revenue declines, including a 3 percent drop to $3.1 billion in 2011, sales for the first three quarters of 2012 were flat at $2.3 billion compared with the same period a year earlier. Cash flow was even better: After dropping 12 percent in 2011 to about $370 million, cash flow increased 17 percent during the first three quarters of 2012, to $240 million.

Los Angeles-based investment firm Oaktree is the largest equity owner, with 23 percent of the company. All of Oaktree's distressed-debt holdings have a 10-year investment window, though the average is three or four years, executives said. That time frame usually includes an operating phase, which is where Tribune Co. now stands.

Some experts expect that phase to be relatively brief.

"I think they are temporary owners," said Marshall Sonenshine, chairman of New York banking firm Sonenshine Partners and a professor at Columbia University Business School. "They're not really there to be long-term shareholders of media assets."

While eventually selling the assets is part of Oaktree's distressed-debt investment strategy, it doesn't preclude a longer run, including strengthening the company through strategic acquisitions, Liang said. And with Tribune Co.'s balance sheet cleaned up, the timing of any asset sales will be at their discretion.

The new board also includes Tribune Co. CEO Eddy Hartenstein; Ross Levinsohn, who recently left as interim chief executive of Yahoo Inc.; Craig Jacobson, an entertainment lawyer; Peter Murphy, a former strategy executive at Walt Disney Co. and Caesars Entertainment; Bruce Karsh, Oaktree's president; and Peter Liguori, a former top television executive at Fox and Discovery, who is expected to be named CEO of Tribune Co.

The makeup of the board and the expected choice of Liguori as CEO suggests that broadcasting will be the operational focus for Tribune Co., according to insiders and media analysts. Priorities are expected to include developing WGN America, which lags cable networks such as FX and TBS in revenue, ratings and cash flow, analysts said.

"It's clear that, in a sense, we have a new Tribune media company, and it's going in a direction that many people thought it would be going," said media analyst Ken Doctor. "It makes the company entertainment leaning versus news leaning."

Meanwhile, in the face of digital competition and sagging industry revenue, Tribune Co.'s newspaper holdings have declined to $623 million in total value, according to financial adviser Lazard. While some analysts expect the newspapers to be bundled and delivered to an assortment of potential new owners -- everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Warren Buffett has expressed interest in acquiring one or more of the nameplates -- they are still profitable and may remain in the Tribune Co. fold for some time, according to insiders.

Tribune reporters Michael Oneal and Becky Yerak contributed.

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2013 the Chicago Tribune


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