Tribune Co. — which for most of its history was best-known as the publisher of papers such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun — has made a huge bet on television with its $2.73 billion acquisition of 19 stations owned by Local TV Holdings LLC.
The appeal of television is obvious. Local television advertising revenue is expected to improve by 12.5%, from $19.2 billion at the end of this year to $21.5 billion in 2017, according to Media Post. TV stations will earn $1.1 billion in digital ad revenue in four years.
About the only bad thing that can be said about Tribune’s strategy is that it’s not unique.
Indeed, Gannett (GCI), which recently agreed to buy Belo Corp (BLO) for $1.5 billion, is likely on the hunt for more network affiliates — as are rivals such as The Washington Post Co. (WPO) and Journal Communications (JRN). Media behemoths such as NBC parent Comcast (CMCSA), ABC parent Walt Disney (DIS) and CBS (CBS) could add to their station lineups as well.
With all this interest in network affiliates, prices are bound to surge over the next few months.
But what might be more interesting to investors and news media junkies is what could happen to Tribune Co.’s papers. Earlier this year, the Chicago-based company announced that it was shopping them around, and nothing much has happened since then. Now, however, Tribune CEO Peter Ligouri is signaling that the company might not want to sell them.
The reason is simple: It might not be worth it.
Thanks to its bankruptcy proceedings, the chain has been able to slash its operating costs at the papers, making them at least nominally profitable. During the last quarter, revenue in the business fell less than 1% on a year-over-year basis as circulation posted a 9% gain. Overall, the publishing unit posted an $89 million operating profit, down 1% compared with a year earlier when it posted a 42% decline. Many publishers are benefiting from online paywalls.
In an interview with Bloomberg News, Tribune Peter Liguori indicated that he was warming up to the “dead tree” business.
“Being new to the newspaper business and keeping an arms-length, rookie perspective, I do believe there are ways to manage the business differently,” he said.
Whether that’s posturing for the sale negotiations is tough to say. The appeal of these papers might be limited to buyers interested in doing civic good or who want to be the next Charles Foster Kane like the Koch brothers. Perhaps Liguori is wondering how bad the sector could be if Warren Buffett is investing there as well. Buffett, though, prefers mid-sized dailies — not the major metros owned by Tribune.
Plus, there are some synergies to be had between local television stations and the newspapers. For instance, TV news broadcasts can interview Washington reporters when major national news breaks, lessening their dependence on the Associated Press and other wires services, which can be pricey. They also can pool resources to cover big stories.
But despite the hoopla over Tribune’s deal and Gannett’s acquisition of Belo, these companies can’t afford to put all of their eggs in television, either.
Many questions remain such as the impact of Aereo, which is seeking to transmit the television signals of the broadcast networks without paying retransmission rights. The broadcast networks are fighting Aereo’s efforts, but so far have been unsuccessful. Some network executives have threatened to charge viewers to access their signals — a move that would dearly cost them and their affiliates in advertising revenue.
Then there are the larger macro issues affecting television. Traditional TV viewership is declining as more people view shows on their tablet computers and smartphones, particularly among younger viewers. The trends are particularly disheartening in local TV news.
“Local television news on the air suffered a reversal of fortune in 2012, losing audience in every key time slot, including those that gained viewers the year before,” according to the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media report issued earlier this year. “The number of adults under 30 who are regular local news viewers has dropped precipitously, from 42% in 2006 to just 28% in 2012.”
Of course, newspapers are doing so poorly that even with its risks, television looks like a better bet.
As of this writing, Jonathan Berr did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Follow him on Twitter at @jdberr.