Sinclair deal means bad news for ‘Chicago’s Very Own’

Tribune Tower

Ninety-three years of history will come to an end for “Chicago’s Very Own” with the sale of Tribune Media, owner of hometown icons WGN-Channel 9 and WGN AM 720, to the politically connected Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Baltimore-based Sinclair will acquire Tribune Media at $43.50 per share for a total price of $3.9 billion, according to an agreement announced Monday. Pending regulatory approval, the deal is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2017.

“Chicago’s Very Own”

Among Tribune Media’s 42 television stations in 33 markets is WGN Television, which has been owned and operated out of Chicago since 1948. Also sold is WGN Radio, launched by the Chicago Tribune (“World’s Greatest Newspaper”) in 1924.

Tribune Media also owns cable network WGN America, digital multicast network Antenna TV, and minority stakes in TV Food Network and CareerBuilder.

Sinclair, which reportedly used its stations’ news programs to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and has close ties to the Trump administration, was able to make the deal only after the Federal Communications Commission voted to ease limits on broadcast TV ownership last month.

“It’s a scandal,” Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the nonprofit Free Press Action Fund, told CNN’s Brian Stelter. “Trump-favoring mega-chain gets rules changed — and expects others to be erased — so it can put its cookie-cutter newscasts in nearly 70 percent of local markets across the country. The Trump FCC has been gaming the rules so Sinclair can look smaller, and even then it still exceeds the national caps.

“It sure looks like a quid pro quo: friendly coverage and full employment for ex-Trump mouthpieces in exchange for a green light to get as big as Sinclair wants.”

Paul Rennie, president and general manager of WGN, declined to comment, referring all inquiries to Tribune Media corporate communications.

When the dust settles, Sinclair will cover up to 72 percent of the United States, including 233 television stations, along with radio properties in Chicago and Seattle/Tacoma, Washington.

“Today’s announcement is the culmination of an extensive strategic review, which has delivered significant value to our stockholders,” Peter Kern, CEO of Tribune Media, said in a statement. “Since we announced the strategic review 15 months ago, we have streamlined the business, monetized non-core assets, strengthened our balance sheet and returned more than $800 million to stockholders — all of which has resulted in a 50 percent increase in stockholder value. We are extremely proud to join Sinclair, and we’re excited that Tribune stockholders and employees will have the opportunity to participate in the long-term growth of the combined company.”

From Chris Ripley, president and CEO of Sinclair: “This is a transformational acquisition for Sinclair that will open up a myriad of opportunities for the company. The Tribune stations are highly complementary to Sinclair’s existing footprint and will create a leading nationwide media platform that includes our country’s largest markets. The acquisition will enable Sinclair to build ATSC 3.0 (Next Generation Broadcast Platform) advanced services, scale emerging networks and national sales, and integrate content verticals. The acquisition will also create substantial synergistic value through operating efficiencies, revenue streams, programming strategies and digital platforms.”

From David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair: “This will be the largest acquisition in our company’s history, and I want to thank everyone from the Sinclair team, as well as our advisors and bankers who made this possible. Television broadcasting is even more relevant today, especially when it comes to serving our local communities. Tribune’s stations allow Sinclair to strengthen our commitment to serving local communities and to advance the Next Generation Broadcast Platform. This acquisition will be a turning point for Sinclair, allowing us to better serve our viewers and advertisers while creating value for our shareholders.”