Reports today say that the Tribune company is starting to shop around its top TV station properties, including WGN in Chicago, KTLA-TV in Los Angeles and WPIX-TV in New York. Although the company will reap pretty good money from the sale, it’s an interesting move that contradicts the company’s position so far.
Up to now Tribune has been one of the largest and most vocal proponents of eliminating the cross-ownership ban that prevents co-ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same market, and of raising the local market ownership limits on TV stations. Tribune actually co-owns papers and stations in both LA and Chicago, which were grandfathered in when the ban went into effect in the 1970s.
The assumption has been that Tribune wants to get bigger and own more stations and papers, not fewer. So, why the sell-off now?
The first obvious answer is that Tribune’s financial fortunes have not been so cheery lately, as evidenced by the struggle at the LA Times over the company’s desire to lay off staff. The American Journalism Review has a more in-depth analysis of Tribune’s financial woes, which the article attributes to its acquisition of Times-Mirror.
But I think a second, less obvious answer, is that Tribune is tired of waiting around for the demise of the cross-ownership ban, and probably isn’t feeling too confident that it will go down the way the company wants it to. The FCC’s media ownership rules revision proceeding is grinding on slowly, and the vast majority of public opinion opposes eliminating the cross-ownership ban. Even though Chairman Martin would like to toss the ban out, that may be a difficult position to pursue politically, made all the more difficult now with a Democratic Congress.
I’m guessing that Tribune is seeing the elimination of the cross-ownership ban as an ever decreasing likelihood, and therefore the fast money of a few sales is looking all the better.